Welcome to Engineering Systems and Environment Briefs, a place to find quick notes and posts from our department faculty, students, staff and alumni.

    Engineering Systems and Environment Labs Host M-Cubed Students and Families

    September 20, 2021

    The M-Cubed Summer Academy paid a visit to the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment’s Structures Lab and Omni-Reality and Cognition Lab on Saturday, Sept. 18. M-Cubed, a program designed to help rising fifth- through eighth-graders develop strong math skills, is organized by 100 Black Men of Central Virginia. M-Cubed stands for math, men and mission.

    Jose Gomez and Donna Chen, both civil engineering faculty members, hosted academy participants and their parents for tours of the Structures and ORCL labs respectively. Civil engineering Ph.D. students Heze Chen and Abdou Ndong held demonstrations in the Structures Lab, while systems engineering Ph.D. student Xiang Guo demonstrated the ORCL’s virtual reality technology.

    Students Present: Link Lab Opens Year with Poster Session

    September 02, 2021

    On Aug. 24 classes began at UVA’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. It was the first opportunity for face-to-face collaboration in over a year. Faculty and students got together in the Link Lab to catch-up and share progress on cyber-physical systems research. From humorous robots, to climate resilience through crowdsourced data, to robotic surgery and even self-powering hardware for IoT, peers and faculty were excited to share ideas while contemplating the important work that will happen in the upcoming year.

    As NASA Intern, Civil Engineering Student Lands Scholarship

    August 30, 2021

    Avery Walters, a third-year civil engineering major in the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment at the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science, has been named a John Mather Nobel Scholar. The award is given by the National Space Grant Foundation Inc. and was made possible with funding from the John and Jane Mather Foundation for Science and the Arts. Eligible recipients must be undergraduate or graduate student interns at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

    Walters, a UVA Engineering Rodman Scholar on track to graduate in three years, began interning at Goddard this summer, where he worked on building 3D models of early spacecraft, specifically Soviet “Venera” probes designed to land on Venus. The project involved researching technical documents, photographs and museum models to compile enough information on each spacecraft to produce realistic three-dimensional models using various rendering software products.

    “I focused on building a 3D model of the Venera 13 and 14 landers, which were both sent to Venus in 1981,” Walters said. “I used Blender for the 3D modeling, and even did some animations in Autodesk Maya. Animation mostly became a goal after I got to take Computer Animation: Design in Motion with Professor Earl Mark in the School of Architecture over the summer.”

    To help with his research, Walters worked with three librarians, Michael Chesnes at NASA; Erich Purpur, UVA research librarian for science and engineering; and Erin Pappas, a humanities librarian at UVA specializing in Slavic languages and literature.

    “They each helped me dig through records we have of the Soviet Venera program to find things like technical descriptions, specifications on the landers, photographs and other attempted reproductions,” Walters said. “We even found drawings that demonstrate the deployment process, which can be helpful for making animations.”

    The highly competitive scholarship provides a $3,000 travel allowance toward the cost of presenting research papers at professional conferences over two years. Recipients also meet Mather, senior astrophysicist and Goddard Fellow and Nobel Prize recipient, as well as other distinguished individuals. The scholarship program funds originated from Mather’s own 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics award.

    Systems Engineering Undergraduate Wins Cybersecurity Competition

    August 18, 2021

    Jason Jabbour, a fourth-year systems engineering major in the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment at the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science, has won the first Deloitte Commonwealth Cyber Initiative Cyber Camp.

    The competition took place virtually over three weekends from July 31 to Aug. 14. According to the camp’s website, 54 students from Virginia colleges and universities worked on a total of 42 challenges in the areas of cyber analytics, network traffic analysis, reverse engineering and cryptography. They also participated in resume-building workshops and mock interviews.

    Jabbour and his fellow participants were invited to the cyber camp as finalists after a qualifying event that whittled the field down from 148 competitors.

    After his first-place finish, Jabbour wrote to Angela Orebaugh, assistant professor of computer science at UVA Engineering, from whom he learned about the camp in Orebaugh’s Introduction to Cybersecurity class in spring 2021.

    “I could not have done this without all your preparation throughout the course,” Jabbour wrote. “Thank you for all the time you invested in your course and students like me.”

    Read more about the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative Cyber Camp and this year’s winners here.

    Engineering Systems and Environment Ph.D. Students Recognized for Cyber-Physical Systems Research

    August 11, 2021

    Benjamin Bowes and Esen Yel have received the Link Lab Outstanding Graduate Research Award, presented by Link Lab faculty members to students who have demonstrated excellence in cyber-physical systems research.

    Bowes and Yel are Ph.D. candidates in the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment at the UVA School of Engineering and Applied Science. Bowes is researching methods to make cities smarter in the UVA Hydroinformatics lab led by professor Jonathan Goodall, who also is associate director of the Link Lab. Yel is researching ways to make autonomous systems safer in assistant professor Nicola Bezzo’s Autonomous Mobile Robots Lab.


    Civil Engineering Student’s Internship Offers Rare Opportunities

    August 06, 2021

    Like many college students, Sarah Besecky is spending the summer working as an intern in a field related to her studies — but not all internships attract the attention of local TV and newspaper reporters like this one has.

    As a kid, Besecky recently told The (Charlottesville) Daily Progress, she used to wonder how bridges stayed up. As she got older, watching buildings rise from empty lots around her Northern Virginia home turned an early interest in engineering toward an even stronger interest in civil engineering, especially construction.

    This summer, as a rising third-year civil engineering major in the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment at the University of Virginia, Besecky is seeing how major construction projects get done first-hand, literally from the ground up. She is an intern for Skanska, the contractor directing the renovation of UVA’s Alderman Library. Skanska is a member of an industry consortium created in partnership with several major construction industry companies as part of the civil engineering program’s construction engineering and management concentration, a new undergraduate and master’s-level track set to launch for the 2021-2022 academic year.


    As The Daily Progress reported, Besecky’s responsibilities include writing a case study of a significant component of the library renovation, a process called underpinning.

    “They’re digging below the existing building and they have to support it or it will cave in. Underpinning is when they dig a pit and place concrete in it as a support foundation,” Besecky told reporter Bryan McKenzie. “There are 41 pits, and it’s a very extensive process that’s been going on for a few months already. We’re just wrapping up now. I’ve been tracking the schedule for that and each component of placing each pit, the different days it takes for that, and to see how that’s going.”

    Besecky is getting a rare opportunity, Shane Wood, Skanska’s project manager, said in the article: “For most civil engineers, you’re never going to do a job this big with this much underpinning, this much complexity or the number of crews and teams that are on site.

    “I assigned her the case study because when you have a situation like this, you need to learn it inside out. You don’t see this situation very often, so you want to be able to pull all that information out 10 or 15 years from now, if you need it. This is my second underpinning and I will probably never see another one this large. I mean, when do you get to do underpinning where you have to support the entire building, except maybe in New York City?”

    Besecky is still early in her undergraduate career, but the internship has increased her interest in construction management, she told The Daily Progress.

    Having glimpsed the work first-hand, Besecky told UVA Engineering she is looking forward to taking courses in the construction engineering and management track to further her formal education in the field.

    “I’m glad CEM options are available at UVA because I want to be well-rounded in all aspects of civil engineering,” she said.

    The summer hasn’t been all about site walkthroughs and tracking how long certain tasks take to complete, though — or seeing things from ground level — she said in an interview with NBC29 reporter Elizabeth Holmes.

    “I’ve gotten to go up in the crane actually and operate it, which was really cool, really fun,” Besecky said.


    Student-Run Coalition Creates Internships to Assist Community Advocacy Groups on Environmental Issues

    July 28, 2021

    An environmental advocacy organization founded at the University of Virginia by Linnea Saby, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment, has hired four UVA student interns this summer to work on projects ranging from protecting a native fish species to monitoring the Mountain Valley Pipeline’s impact on vulnerable communities.

    The organization, known as Virginia Scientist-Community Interface, is a coalition of graduate students in engineering, science and policy programs in Virginia and the Southeast. The group’s mission is to provide scientific data and analysis to environmental advocates and community organizers who may not have the means or expertise to access science resources, according to a news release.

    “[Virginia Scientist-Community Interface] advocacy-relevant technical reports have been cited in federal litigation, distributed through grassroots advocacy networks, and lauded by senior scientists who review their work,” the release said.

    The UVA Sustainability Committee provided funding for this summer’s four interns, Boyang Lu, John Leo Luecke, Veda Raghu and Holly Sims, whose projects are summarized below:

    • Lu is a Ph.D. student in engineering systems and environment with research interests in sustainable cultivation technologies, especially hydroponics. He is part of a team making culverts more wildlife-friendly and a team dedicated to protecting endangered species. His internship focuses on local and regional issues by studying advocacy documents and learning to recognize what community partners need and how scientists can help.
    • Luecke is compiling publicly available pollution reports related to the Radford Army Ammunition Plant to address a lack of transparency and effective communication with the plant’s neighbors regarding potentially dangerous incidents. He also has attended meetings organized by Citizens for Arsenal Accountability. The information Luecke, who is majoring in environmental thought and practice in the College of Arts & Sciences, is collecting will be published online to increase public awareness of the arsenal’s impact on surrounding communities and the environment.
    • Raghu, a biomedical engineering major, is learning to conduct graduate-level research and contributing to a white paper for a group helping to protect the endangered candy darter, a freshwater fish species found only in the watersheds of the Gauley, Greenbrier and New rivers. Raghu is also independently researching how legislation helps perpetuate inequity in the healthcare system.
    • Sims is on two Virginia Scientist-Community Interface teams, one reviewing technical documentation for the Mountain Valley Pipeline and another related to improving environmental justice. She has reviewed literature that can be used to hold the Mountain Valley Pipeline accountable to environmental regulations. She has also studied analysis methods to better recognize marginalized communities disproportionately affected by natural gas pipelines. Sims is an undergraduate student in the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy and environmental science.

    Virginia Scientist-Community Interface seeks new members, including UVA undergraduate and graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and faculty interested in its work.

    “Students have a lot of knowledge and power that can be useful in the world of environmental advocacy,” Saby, who is president of the organization, said. “We provide an opportunity to put that knowledge to work and have a real-world impact.”

    To learn more, visit or email

    Making it Safer to Gather Indoors

    July 01, 2021

    UVA and Virginia Tech engineering collaborators aim to optimize HVAC systems to eliminate viruses and harmful particles in the air

    In response to COVID-19, a team of University of Virginia and Virginia Tech researchers are working together to make indoor spaces healthier — a development sure to be welcomed by all those heading back to work, school and other indoor spaces after a year of stay-at-home orders. The team’s research evaluates strategies for reducing indoor transmission of harmful particles and viruses, such as the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, through new methods using sensors, air cleaners, and heating, ventilation and air conditioning — or HVAC — systems.

    ESE Team Wins Best Paper Award

    May 27, 2021

    A research team from the University of Virginia’s Department of Engineering Systems and Environment has won a 2021 Best Paper Award in the journal Water.

    The paper, “Forecasting Groundwater Table in a Flood-Prone Coastal City with Long Short-term Memory and Recurrent Neural Networks,” reports on research by Benjamin Bowes, an ESE Ph.D. student. Bowes co-authored the work with Jeffrey Sadler, a 2019 Ph.D. graduate; Mohamed Morsy, a 2017 Ph.D. graduate; Madhur Behl, assistant professor in computer science and engineering systems and environment; and Jonathan Goodall, professor in engineering systems and environment and associate director of UVA Engineering’s Link Lab. Behl is also affiliated with the Link Lab, an interdisciplinary center for cyber-physical systems research.

    Find the paper here.

    ESE’s Majid Shafiee-Jood Teams with Weldon Cooper Center and Batten Researchers on CoLabs Project

    May 27, 2021

    The Environmental Resilience Institute at UVA’s Collaborative Research program, known as CoLabs, is funding a project by Majid Shafiee-Jood, an assistant professor in the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment, and his partners at UVA’s Weldon Cooper Center and Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. Weldon Cooper economist and principal scientist Art Small and Jay Shimshack, associate professor of public policy and economics and the associate dean for academic affairs at Batten, are teaming with Shafiee-Jood to study the timing of hurricane evacuation decisions.

    The team will use information from different data sources such as anonymized cell phone data, historical hurricane forecasts, evacuation orders and demographics, to better understand individual evacuation decisions and collective evacuation patterns in coastal areas. Coastal areas face significant risk from more frequent extreme weather events associated with climate change attributed to human activity; the resilience of coastal communities in the face of these risks depends substantially on how quickly and smoothly communities can carry out large-scale evacuations under threat from major events, such as hurricanes. Insights from this project will help coastal communities devise more effective reactive and long-term plans in response to natural disasters.

    The project aims to understand individual and collective responses to natural disasters by connecting early warning information about hurricanes, emergency managers’ corresponding evacuation orders, and the public’s evacuation decisions. The project specifically highlights the role of emergency managers and their decision-making under uncertainty, and investigates the effectiveness of evacuation orders. Additionally, while most previous studies have focused on stated behaviors of individuals through post-hurricane surveys, this research focuses on real-time evacuation actions during a hurricane using newly available mobility datasets.

    While answering fundamental questions in the project, the team’s preliminary findings and datasets also will help to develop proposals for external funding sources such as the National Science Foundation’s Decision, Risk and Management Sciences program and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Social, Behavioral and Economics Science programs.