Childhood Earthquake Inspired ASCE New Face to Make a Seismic Difference

February 21, 2018

NF Button (1)It was just after midnight. Guillermo Díaz-Fañas, 14 years old, awoke to a buzzing in his ears.

He sat up and looked around. Surely, this was some kind of dream. The walls appeared to bend; everything was shaking. His immediate thought was of protecting his 12-year-old brother.

Diaz Fanas“All I could think was, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do?’” Díaz-Fañas remembered. “I sheltered him with my body, because objects were falling all around us.”

It was no dream. It was a magnitude-6.4 earthquake, rocking the Dominican Republic in the early hours of Sept. 22, 2003, with an epicenter just outside Santiago and the Díaz-Fañas home.

“My brother and I ran to the backyard,” Díaz-Fañas said. “We couldn’t sleep. It was the longest night.”

All across Puerto Plata and Santiago, houses and schools were damaged. Many students couldn’t return to their classes for months. Díaz-Fañas saw the world differently after that night.

“I remember at that time, I told my parents, ‘I have to do something about this. It’s a matter of protecting communities. How do we keep them from suffering from natural hazards?’” Díaz-Fañas said.

“I think this question marked the beginning of my journey as a civil engineer, and it’s one of the things that still drives me to this day.”

Díaz-Fañas has taken that experience and built a remarkable career as a geotechnical engineer for WSP USA in New York City, working to make good on that promise he made as a scared but resolute 14-year-old boy. ASCE has honored him as a 2018 New Face of Civil Engineering.

His work started in the classroom, earning his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering at his hometown Pontificia Universidad Católica Madre y Maestra, and then at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as a Fulbright Scholar in structural engineering. Along the way, he applied his research toward extreme-event mitigation, and this meant trips to South Korea, China, Haiti, Greece, and Ecuador, as well as offsite work as part of reconnaissance teams in Mexico and Ecuador.

Díaz-Fañas’ work for WSP, a global engineering and professional services consultancy, has allowed him to combine both research and application in the ways he imagined as a teenager. He’s done analysis and design for the Second Avenue Subway project. As part of a WSP USA fellowship, he’s researched seismic performance and improvements of masonry buildings – many of the same kinds of structures found in his Dominican homeland.

He’s also performed seismic hazard studies with a multidisciplinary team on high-risk buildings in Mexico City. And he’s part of a WSP global resilience initiative called SPEED, which offers clients a decision-making platform, based on risk assessment and life-cycle asset management, so communities can bounce back from extreme events stronger than they were before.

“It’s very important to me. This work makes my whole journey matter,” Díaz-Fañas said. “Because back then as a kid, I knew I wanted to make a difference; but I didn’t understand how. And today I think I’m on the correct path to make that difference.”

Diaz-Fanas, WEB VERT

“My ultimate goal is to be an ambassador for civil engineering and STEM, to serve as a role model for kids worldwide and break down the barriers that separate us as individuals and professionals, My goal is to help communities come together in addressing the challenges of engineering resiliency that our environment continues to face.”

Technical excellence is not all that defines Díaz-Fañas’ contributions, either. He has worked to make civil engineering a more welcoming profession to young people – especially women, Latinos, and members of the LGBTQ+ communities.

“As a member of many underrepresented minority groups myself, I can tell you that engineering was not always maybe as open as it’s been lately,” Díaz-Fañas said. “It’s not always been an easy path, and I’m trying to change that.”

Diaz-Fanas cofounded a nonprofit organization called QUAKE – Queer Advocacy and Knowledge Exchange – that empowers LGBTQ+ individuals within the civil engineering, architecture, and construction professions.

It all comes back to the lessons learned that fateful night in the D.R. back in 2003 – resiliency and community.

“My ultimate goal is to be an ambassador for civil engineering and STEM, to serve as a role model for kids worldwide and break down the barriers that separate us as individuals and professionals,” Díaz-Fañas said. “My goal is to help communities come together in addressing the challenges of engineering resiliency that our environment continues to face.

“Putting differences between us will not help us achieve anything. This discourages people from pursuing their dreams. When you cut someone’s wings, they cannot fly.

“As long as people work hard together and give the best of themselves, we can achieve anything. I know this journey is very, very long. And each day brings me closer and closer, and every small achievement fuels my energy to keep going.”

ASCE will honor all 10 New Faces of Civil Engineering – Professional at the 2018 OPAL Gala, March 15, in Arlington, VA. Read more about the rest of the New Faces class.

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