From Revolutionary Researcher to Tireless Teacher, OPAL Winner Grateful for the Journey

January 12, 2017
Bruce Ellingwood is the 2017 OPAL Award winner in education.
Bruce Ellingwood is the 2017 OPAL Award winner in education.

Bruce Ellingwood has a plaque hanging in the study of his Colorado home. On it are the signatures of 33 Ph.D. students whom he has advised and mentored.

“I think it’s the most treasured possession I have,” Ellingwood said.

“This legacy we leave as educators is probably the most important thing we do. I think it’s more important than specific papers and specific accomplishments. The fact that you’re leaving a legacy of people who will carry your approach to professional ethics and work – the people we influence are the most important.”

Ellingwood, Ph.D., P.E., F.SEI, NAE, Dist.M.ASCE, is a pioneer of probability-based design standards for structures, a Professor of Civil Engineering and College of Engineering Eminent Scholar at Colorado State University, and ASCE’s 2017 recipient of the Outstanding Project And Leaders Award in education.

OPAL read more sidebarHis career path never followed a straight line but nevertheless demonstrated a logical progression – from research to groundbreaking publications to education.

“The key to being successful is not so much in having an exact career plan,” Ellingwood said. “The real key is to develop the talent and skill to recognize an opportunity when it presents itself.”

The first such opportunity for Ellingwood came in 1967, when a National Science Foundation-supported summer independent study program for students introduced him to the joys of research. The topic? The use of probability to understand the effect of uncertainties on steel column buckling.

“I never thought of building a career around that,” Ellingwood said. “It was a whole new concept at that time.”

Yet he did build a career around it. His Ph.D. research at the University of Illinois was seminal, taking an integrated approach to using probability to develop design criteria for reinforced concrete structures. He studied under Alfredo Ang, one of the founders of the field of structural reliability who in his mid-80s today remains professionally active and influential. The chair of the department at the time was legendary engineer Nathan Newmark.

OPAL link sidebar1“Newmark was rigorous in his approach to teaching and research, and was enormously influential on both students and faculty,” Ellingwood said. “Everything he did was pointed at some application. He once said, ‘If you do research and there’s no practical consequence, if it doesn’t advance the engineering profession, then what’s the point?’ It was very easy to adopt that view because he was a very inspirational person.”

To that end, Ellingwood’s research in the 1970s and 1980s contributed mightily to structural design criteria. He worked for the Naval Ship Research and Development Center and then 12 years for the National Bureau of Standards. Today, structural reliability theory and practice are the foundations of risk-informed decision-making in structural engineering – thanks in large part to Ellingwood’s work.

But for him it all comes back to the teaching. He has spent more than three decades educating students at Johns Hopkins University, Georgia Tech, and Colorado State. Even in his retirement, he travels to China every June to teach intensive, six-week courses in reliability, stability and principles of structural load modeling.

“It has been, and continues to be, very rewarding,” Ellingwood said. “I’ve had an excellent run, as they say. But I realize that there were a lot of people and students along the way who had a tremendous influence on how I approach my work. This hasn’t happened in a vacuum.

“Without the students I’ve had over the years, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

This year’s OPAL winners will be honored at the 2017 OPAL Gala, March 16, in Arlington, VA.

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