Brian Smith, chair of the University of Virginia’s Department of Civil and Environmental engineering at the University of Virginia, said it best: “Tom Baber has been a real citizen of the University and the department.”
Unassuming and unfailingly generous, Baber has played a pivotal role in making it possible for generations of civil and environmental engineering students and faculty to realize their potential.
Baber, associate professor emeritus, was also a pioneering researcher, ahead of his time in the ideas he brought to structural engineering. He applied probability theory to the design of engineering structures and instrumentation and to the modeling of transportation structures, essentially a cyber-physical systems approach that was a precursor to methods currently being used at UVA Engineering’s Link Lab. In the course of his career, Baber authored or co-authored 60 scholarly publications and reports.
Ultimately, however, Baber was a builder as much as a researcher. “Tom helped build facilities, and he helped build lives,” Smith said. For Baber’s service, the department is renaming its Structures Lab in his honor. The dedication ceremony was May 10.
An Inspiring Mentor
Baber arrived at UVA Engineering in 1980, after working for almost a decade as a structural engineer, and he soon established himself as someone ready to take on assignments that strengthened the department. He was a member of the department’s undergraduate curriculum committee for more than 20 years, and served on the Faculty Senate.
Baber also proved to be an exceptionally influential teacher and mentor. Of the six Ph.D. students he advised, one went on to become dean of engineering at California Polytechnic State University. He was especially effective with undergraduates. An enthusiastic supporter of hands-on student learning, Baber served as advisor to the American Society of Civil Engineers National Concrete Canoe Competition and the National Student Steel Bridge Competition. An approachable presence in the classroom, he won the Civil Engineering Teaching Award in 2004 and 2011 and UVA Engineering’s Distinguished Faculty Award in 2014.
Sharon Wood, one of the countless undergraduates Baber inspired, credits him for setting her on a path that led to her becoming the first woman appointed dean of the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin. Wood took three courses with Baber as an undergraduate and asked him to serve as advisor for her undergraduate thesis.
“Tom spent countless hours talking with me about graduate school and about research ideas,” she said. “Without his influence, it is unlikely that I would have gone on to attend graduate school.”
Wood has given the University a gift in honor of Baber. This gift has allowed for increased investment in the Structures Lab.
A Generous Colleague
In 2012, the department’s structures group began moving in a new direction, hiring two new faculty members, Devin Harris and Osman Ozbulut. Both Harris and Ozbulut are interested in structures as cyber-physical systems and in the application of advanced sensing and methods for structural health monitoring.
“This research is putting us at the cutting edge of structures,” Smith said.
For instance, Ozbulut’s research focuses on the use of innovative materials and inventive sensing technologies to develop resilient and sustainable civil infrastructure. He is employing a concept called hybrid simulation, which combines real-time integration of experimental measurements of a structural system component with a computer simulation. This allows continuous refinement of model and experiment.
Harris is exploring the application of high-resolution cameras and other noninvasive measurement techniques to provide remote sensing of structures such as bridges.
“A key advantage of a noninvasive approach is that it would enable engineers to assess structures without interrupting traffic patterns,” Harris said. “It would also spare engineers the logistic and economic costs of having to replace aging sensors.”
Having a fully functioning Structures Lab has been an essential prerequisite for both Ozbulut’s and Harris’s research. Baber helped fill that need.
The department had a traditional structures lab located in Thornton Hall, but it needed to be updated to reflect the department’s distinctive approach to structural engineering research. Baber took responsibility for rejuvenating the lab so that when Ozbulut and Harris arrived on Grounds, they could more quickly begin their research. Baber spearheaded the acquisition of new equipment and designed the custom load frame for the lab, and coordinated initial facilities upgrades to accommodate the new equipment and activities.
“Tom was absolutely instrumental in getting us off to a solid start,” Harris said. “Thanks to his institutional knowledge, he accomplished in just a few months what would have taken us years to do.”
In rebuilding the lab, Baber set the stage for Harris and Ozbulut to take structures research at UVA in new directions.
“The research Tom enabled will help ensure that the nation’s infrastructure is more resilient and sustainable,” Smith said. “He is a good example of what makes engineering at UVA so special.”