Through his research on earthquake engineering and soil dynamics, Rensselaer’s Ricardo Dobry has had an extraordinary and far-reaching impact: on bridges in New York City, offshore oil platforms in Venezuela and Australia, earth dams and dikes in California, Puerto Rico, and South America, and thousands of U.S. buildings constructed since the 1990s.
In recognition for his contributions, Dobry has been awarded the J. James Croes Medal of the American Society of Civil Engineers (in 1985) and has been elected to the U.S. National Academy of Engineering (in 2004) two of engineering’s highest accolades. This fall, he was named Institute Professor of Engineering, one of the most prestigious honors bestowed upon a Rensselaer faculty member.
Dobry is a professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Center for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (CEES). He also oversees a team of earthquake researchers collaborating with the National Science Foundation (NSF) and 14 other educational institutions in the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation.
He has been instrumental in the development of seismic code requirements and seismic guidelines for buildings, bridges, and other structures. In addition, he is one of the authors of the 20-year research plan in earthquake engineering, prepared for NSF in 2003 by the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute.
A native of Chile, Dobry holds a bachelor’s degree in structural engineering from the University of Chile, a master’s in soil mechanics from the National University of Mexico, and a doctor of science in civil engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has been a member of the Rensselaer faculty since 1977. Currently he is on sabbatical, collaborating on a textbook titled Soil Dynamics.
Dobry was drawn to geotechnical earthquake engineering, in part, by its unpredictability and by “the detective work that’s required in any project involving soil. In this type of engineering, you spend 50 percent to 70 percent of your time investigating what nature has done, developing an understanding of the site and how it might behave,” he says. “Soil is not like steel or other man-made materials. We can predict quite well what those will do; we can’t say the same for nature.”
Although he has never been close to the epicenter of a large earthquake, Dobry has felt the shaking from a distance and has arrived to investigate the damaged area within days of the seismic event. He is fascinated by the rarity and complexity of earthquakes, by the ingenuity needed to prevent or mitigate the damage they cause, and by the knowledge, skills, and tools required to understand these tectonic shifts and their effects on human infrastructure.
“You have to combine seismology, geology, soil dynamics, and probability. You work with scientists to understand the quake itself and with other geotechnical and structural engineers to determine its implications,” Dobry says. “From an intellectual standpoint, it’s intriguing. But it also has practical and beneficial applications.”
Before joining Rensselaer, Dobry worked as a civil/structural engineer in Chile and as an engineering consultant in San Francisco. It was there that he realized his first love was research.
“Even the best consulting is not the same as research,” Dobry says. Although he still consults on occasion including on the new Rion-Antirion Bridge in Greece, selected by the American Society of Civil Engineers as the 2005 Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement he prefers the rewards of research: the knowledge it provides, the potential public benefit, and the opportunity to mentor the researchers and engineers of the future. He talks with enthusiasm about “the ‘aha’ moment, that instant when we realize that we understand something better than any other human being before us and that its implications are important.”
Dobry believes that those engaged in research, especially those who have attained a certain status, have an obligation to contribute to the public good. His work on seismic codes is a prime example, as is that of his CEES colleagues in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. A Rensselaer team, led by CEES Associate Director Tarek Abdoun, assisted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in investigating the failure of the levees in New Orleans through centrifuge small-scale modeling, one of the main specialties of CEES.
“My involvement was minor, but the team made a major contribution to the understanding of what caused the breach,” Dobry says. “I’m very proud to be the director of a center that did so much to help.”
He feels that same sense of pride when he witnesses the progress of his doctoral students and prepares them, ultimately, to overtake him. “If you’ve done your job,” Dobry says, “at some point your doctoral students should know more than you do on the subject of their research. That’s when you know they’ve spread their wings and are ready to make their individual mark on the world.”
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