In order to further the academic and personal connections inherent in the Oregon State University experience, the Honors College recently introduced a new series of talks given by faculty about their research and careers. These talks are designed to foster student-faculty connections and share the importance of research in an honors education – regardless of academic field or personal background.
Dr. Ben Mason, Assistant Dean of the Honors College and Associate Professor of Civil and Construction Engineering, began the series with a discussion of his background in earthquake engineering and how faculty members incorporate both research and teaching into their day-to-day work.
Ben’s primary field of study is in natural hazards engineering, focusing specifically on soil and its behaviors in response to earthquake and tsunami scenarios. He opened his talk by discussing the different responsibilities of college faculty; more than just teaching, Ben explained, college faculty are also actively engaged in scholarship in their respective fields.
“Everyone gets asked ‘What do you teach?’,” Ben said. “If you want to ask a faculty member a better question, ask them what they study.” He went on to explain that, in most cases, what a faculty member teaches is directly related to their research.
Ben’s interest in geotechnical and earthquake engineering began at a young age. He was fascinated by the operations of a granite quarry near his home; each time the quarry set off a charge, a resulting shockwave was felt all throughout Ben’s house, shaking the walls with force that had traveled through the ground and air. This idea of waves propagating through different mediums intrigued Ben, and he later went on to study a similar field during his undergraduate program at Georgia Institute of Technology.
While Ben enjoyed the technical side of his time studying microcracks in concrete in a Georgia Tech research lab, he found that one essential component was missing from his work – the human aspect. Ben works in civil engineering, he explained, largely because of the human element inherent in the field; he wanted to work to understand wave propagation while also retaining the personal interactions that he believes are key.
In order to better explain his current work, Ben gave an overview of his trip to Palu, Indonesia, following an earthquake that took place there in September 2018. On the trip, Ben worked with a team of other engineers, geologists, and soil experts to assess what damage was done to the local landscape and how it occurred. Through a discussion of the trip and its findings, Ben explained how the research performed in Indonesia can help to increase earthquake preparedness in the rest of the world, including here in the Pacific Northwest.
Much of the field reconnaissance done after a seismic event involves “bringing soil to the surface so we can manually and visually classify it,” Ben explained. The process involves drilling into the earth, making careful observations of collected soil samples, recording detailed information about the soil itself, and later analysis of these findings and other data collected.
“Another thing we do an awful lot is fly drones,” Ben said. These drones create digital elevation maps of the post-earthquake landscape, which can later be compared to earlier maps to establish how soil shifted during and after the earthquake.
“It’s a very heavy moment when you’re doing these recon missions – the real toll is the emotional exhaustion that comes,” Ben said. At the same time, though, “you see the absolute best in humanity.” In the face of tragedy, he explained, those performing earthquake reconnaissance get to see vibrant cultures bounce back from devastating events by drawing closer as a community and providing each other the support needed to move on and thrive.
“The kids are still smiling,” Ben said. “You get to increase your faith in humanity – see that we’re really not so different.”
Ben closed his talk with a reiteration of the importance of persistence and hard work in the face of setbacks – behaviors he’s seen time and time again in communities struck by earthquakes.
“Your profession is going to have ups and downs,” Ben said. “Make the best of it, and grow from it.”
This series will continue in the future with faculty drawn from a wide variety of disciplines. Keep an eye out on social media @OSUHonors to find out when the next talk will be!