Civil and Construction Engineering
The road under our wheels is, for most of us, an avenue from point A to point B. But for Christopher Higgins, the road is the destination. While we breeze over Oregon’s highways and bridges without a second thought, the OSU civil engineering professor is analyzing and testing the materials and structures on which our tires roll.
As tragically evidenced by the August 2007 bridge collapse in Minneapolis, our lives depend on the results. That’s because the state’s 35,000–mile network of asphalt, concrete and steel that we take for granted is rapidly aging. "If we ignore the slow, steady decline of our highways and bridges, it’s just a matter of time before they fail," says Higgins, a member and former interim director of OSU’s Kiewit Center for Infrastructure and Transportation.
When the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) recently discovered alarming numbers of cracks in the state’s bridges, it turned to Kiewit Center engineers, economists, computer scientists and statisticians. In OSU’s strong–floor laboratory with its life–size girders and rolling–load simulator, Higgins and his colleagues perform three–dimensional investigations on such bridge–punishing loads as tractor–trailer semis moving from one end of the span to the other.
It’s breakthrough science.
"We’ve done some experiments that nobody in the world has ever done before," says Higgins.
The forces that impinge on manmade structures — the trucks that rumble, the gusts that buffet, the subterranean faults and plates that shift and shudder — are the nemeses of engineers. Higgins takes them on with an irrepressible spirit of discovery. The son of two Ph.D.s (a nursing professor and a founder of a civil engineering firm), he is almost apologetic when he confesses that "everything is interesting to me," acknowledging that in an academic world that prizes specialists, his eclecticism is something "countercultural."
After high school, where he pounded out riffs with his heavy–metal band Larry and the Angry Dogs, Higgins made a "Goldi–locks" decision to attend Marquette University (it was bigger than his dad’s alma mater Manhattan College but smaller than massive University of Texas). His field was more of a comfort zone than a choice. "I never had a moment where the clouds parted and a voice said, ‘You shall be a structural engineer,’" he recalls. "It just felt right."
Inspirational faculty at Marquette cemented Higgins’s love of structure, and he carried his mentors’ example of gifted teaching to OSU in 2000. The Lloyd Carter Award for Outstanding and Inspirational Teaching and the American Society of Civil Engineers student chapter’s Teacher of the Year award — twice — attest to his stand–out status in the classroom.
And in 2007, his research produced outstanding benefits for ODOT and Oregon taxpayers. The methods developed by his team to evaluate Oregon highway bridges enabled ODOT to better distinguish bridges that needed repair or replacement from those that did not. The result: savings of up to a half billion dollars in costs.
Although Higgins admires the soaring architectural masterpieces of Spanish engineer Santiago Calatrava (once described as the "poet of glass and steel"), he holds his deepest affection for the close–to–home, reinforced concrete bridges of Oregon’s Conde B. McCullough. "On the right day, with the right light," he says, "Yaquina Bay Bridge is magical.
"The bridge is structure, and the structure is art. We’re not covering it in marble and granite. We’re letting the structure speak to you."