Student Spotlight: Elmer Irizarry

Student Spotlight: Elmer Irizarry

Questions and Answers

  • Where are you from?

Mayaguez, Puerto Rico

  • Where did you get your undergrad degree, and what was your major? Do you have an MS?

I did a bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering and a minor in Integrated Practice in Architecture and Civil Engineering at the University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez.

  • What attracted you to engineering?

I was always interested in STEM-related things from an early age, Civil Engineering stood out because I was fascinated with building plans and bridges. I also loved playing with LEGOs so there might be some influence there.

  • What attracted you to pursue a Ph.D. in your specialty area?

When I was starting the courses for my minor, I learned many topics about the resilience and sustainability of infrastructure and the effect of the construction industry on the environment. I was already interested in civil engineering materials from my courses at UPRM, but all my research experience was mostly focused on structural engineering. I eventually decided to focus on concrete research because finding more efficient ways to build with this material would significantly impact the industry, which is responsible for large amounts of carbon emissions. It is also the most used construction material worldwide and I see good opportunities for future research with the hope of applying it to resilient infrastructure in Puerto Rico.

  • How do you explain your thesis research to a non-scientist?

3D-printing of concrete is not an easy task because you need a mix that flows before it is printed but is also extrudable from a nozzle and maintains its shape after placement. Additionally, it needs to develop strength quite fast so more layers can be built on top of it without turning into a puddle. My research focuses on creating concrete mixes that not only comply with those parameters but also develop very high strength after setting (Ultra High-Performance Concrete). Another aspect I am looking into is measuring the hardened properties of the 3D-printed samples, which is needed if you want to use the material to design larger structures.

  • What attracted you to NU?

When comparing graduate schools, I was considering the research projects, faculty, and funding (the usual). However, I knew that a Ph.D. is a long-term commitment especially coming directly from a bachelor's, so I also felt that the location was very important in my decision. Northwestern stood out for me because it had all I was looking for from an academic and research perspective, as well as having great people in a good environment with the convenience of being in a nice city.

  • What has been the highlight of your time at NU and CEE?

Working on research projects has been one of the best experiences here but in addition to that I have also enjoyed being surrounded by great people. Whether it is guest speakers, faculty, staff, or other students, NU and especially the CEE department have given me the opportunity to meet people who might be working in fields very similar to mine but also hear from other research areas that I never thought existed.

  • What has been the most challenging aspect of your graduate school experience?

The coursework has been one of the most challenging aspects for me. On top of being graduate-level courses, Northwestern has a faster pace than I was accustomed to. In the beginning, it was hard to get used to but after being more involved in research I started seeing the benefits of the courses and applying what I've been learning.

  • Can you tell us about your experience being mentored or mentoring others?

I have had a positive experience when it comes to mentorship in my group, and I think it is mostly due to good communication. For most of my day-to-day tasks, I can count on our postdocs or senior Ph.D. students for help, and they have been incredibly helpful when starting research projects. Other times I may need help when it comes to more complex problems or figuring out what direction to take the project and my advisor has been very helpful with that aspect as well.

  • What are your interests or hobbies outside of your research?

I enjoy listening to music and podcasts and although I rarely watch series or movies, I love a good documentary. Recently I have gotten into biking so I’m definitely looking forward to riding around Evanston and Chicago.


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