Even though UC Davis is safe from a major earthquake, one member of the campus community is preparing for the world’s worst. Ross Boulanger, Ph.D., is an earthquake specialist in the Civil and Environmental Engineering department. Between teaching classes and overseeing major earthquake, dam and levee studies, he recently co-wrote and published a book on liquefaction, or the damage that happens underground when earthquakes hit. But don’t let that bring you down – this Canadian professor loves every quaking minute of his research and professorship!
What do you teach here at UC Davis?
I mostly teach upper-division geotechnical engineering classes and graduate classes – things like foundation designs and earthquake engineering. Every once in a while I get to teach a lower division class, like statics.
What’s your favorite class to teach?
It’s hard to say, but I really like the upper division undergraduate classes like soil mechanics and foundation engineering.
Where did you go to school?
Well, I’m from Canada and so I got my undergraduate at University of British Columbia and I came down to go to grad school at UC Berkeley. At the time I didn’t even know where it was. I thought I was going to L.A.! I met my wife there, and that’s why I’m still in California. I graduated in 1990 and came up here [to Davis] in 1992 for a faculty position.
What are you working on right now?
I work mostly on how embankment dams and levees behave during earthquakes and how bridge foundations behave during earthquakes.
Does seeing what earthquakes do to manmade structures cause you think that engineers can’t out-smart the earth?
We can [prevent damage] if we design well enough. The question really is, ‘how much money are you willing to spend to make your structure do well?’ So a lot of poorer countries don’t do well in earthquakes but that’s partly because of the different engineering practices [they use] and whether or not people have routinely identified liquefaction as a major concern and whether they’ve done something about it.
Have you helped design any levees or dams that Californians might know about?
That’s actually what I was doing this morning! I was working on a project as a reviewer and I help people make sure that they’re staying up to date technically, and then also help them make sure that as they look at a problem they’re not missing anything.
You work with a unique device at UC Davis called a Centrifuge. What is a Centrifuge?
We use the centrifuge to model the behavior of structures during earthquakes. Soils are a really interesting thing in that [their behavior] really depends on how much confining stress you have on them.
If you buried soil under one foot of material, that soil would behave differently if you [buried the soil] under a 200-foot high embankment because of the weight. What we do with the centrifuge is when you take a model of soil – suppose we make a little dam and it’s two feet high – we put it on the end of the centrifuge and we spin it around and everything moves to the end. We produce a centrifugal acceleration.
And we use that to produce models that have similar stress conditions as larger structures in reality. Then when you’ve done that you get a better approximation of behavior. UC Davis has one of the largest in the United States-physically it has a 30-foot radius and the model container weighs maybe five tons.
Which do you like more, teaching or doing this research?
Half my time spent here is research and a third of it is teaching and the rest is service. That balance depends on where you are in your career. I love the teaching; that’s why I came to the university, but I also love to research. It’s like a puzzle. I love puzzles.
What would you do during an earthquake?
When the Loma Prieta Earthquake happened, it was Oct. 17 – my anniversary – and I was buying my wife some earrings at a jewelry store and the earthquake happened. There’s this thing you can do where you count the number of cycles during the shaking, you can estimate the magnitude of an earthquake and how far away it is.
So when the earthquake finished, I had come pretty close to what the magnitude of the earthquake had been and I was really proud of myself. But I looked around and I saw that everyone was underneath the tables but there I was underneath a big, swinging chandelier. So you never know what you might actually do when there’s an earthquake.
Who is your favorite scientist?
What’s something your students might not know about you?
I play hockey!
LAUREN STEUSSY can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org