José Andrade

New faculty update

Predicting geological behavior

When José Andrade left his home in Ecuador to study civil engineering in the United States, he had every intention of returning for a career as a structural engineer. Ten years later it’s safe to say that his plans have changed as he settles into his role as a new assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering.

Andrade is in good company. This year seven new faculty members joined the school — one of the largest entering classes of new faculty in recent memory. According to Dean Julio M. Ottino, that’s no accident.

“One can’t overstate the importance of hiring the right faculty,” says Ottino. “It’s a very competitive process among top universities, and we made significant efforts to improve our hiring process. We had great success this year, signifying that McCormick continues to be a top destination for talented faculty.”

Despite the competition for top prospects, McCormick saw approximately 80 percent of its offers for new faculty accepted — something of a coup for the school. Traditionally hiring averages have hovered closer to the 45 to 50 percent mark.

For Andrade the choice to come to Northwestern was easy. “I had always admired Northwestern,” he says. “In geo­technics and mechanics, they’ve had an extremely successful team dating back a very long time.”

At McCormick, Andrade will continue his research in geomechanics, a subject combining elements of civil, environmental, and mechanical engineering. Andrade attempts to model the behavior of geomaterials under load-bearing conditions. In developing a predictive model, he hopes to be able to avoid the building catastrophes that often happen in the aftermath of natural disasters. He points to the 1964 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, as a classic example.

“After the Kobe earthquake, buildings toppled because of soil liquefaction,” he says. “The soil that sustains these buildings literally becomes a liquid. There’s nothing wrong with the buildings themselves, but they sink and fall over. You want to be able to predict those problems so that you can map regions that are potentially at risk. Right now, we don’t have a good quantitative way of doing that.”

Andrade’s research focuses on building a model that could apply to all geomaterials. “We’re trying to take a step back and find a framework that applies to all three areas of geomaterials [rock, soil, and concrete],” he says. “We believe that a common pattern is a granular structure, which is present in all of these materials at some scale.”

In order to develop a common framework, Andrade must find ways to bridge computational models at the granular scale with those that are proven to work at a larger scale. To test his theories, he runs his model on completed experiments to compare his predictions to established results.

Andrade didn’t intend to pursue a career in academia, but the option kept presenting itself throughout his education. After leaving Ecuador to study undergraduate engineering in Florida, he connected with a professor who taught soil mechanics. That relationship sparked an interest that Andrade pursued during his graduate studies at Stanford, eventually inspiring him to pursue an academic career.

“You fall in love with what you do, and then you consider your professional options to support that love,” Andrade says. “It was clear that if I wanted to stay close to cutting-edge models and research, academia was the obvious way to go.”

In addition to teaching undergraduate courses in engineering mechanics, Andrade is developing new graduate courses in geo­mechanics. “I love teaching and interacting with students,” he says. “I try to tackle teaching and research in a combined way. You let your research inform your teaching, and vice versa.”

Andrade couldn’t be happier with his new role. “When I found out that there was a position open here, I told my wife that it would be too good to be true,” he says. “I was right — it has been.”

—Kyle Delaney