Q&A with Department Chair Devin Harris
In September 2022 Devin K. Harris was named chair of the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment, which for four years had been the home department of civil and environmental engineering and systems and information engineering at the University of Virginia.
Harris, a professor of civil engineering, was appointed in a time of transition, following a recent vote by the faculty to split into two departments. When the split became official this year, Harris became chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in UVA’s School of Engineering and Applied Science.
The combined department had helped to establish new collaborations and efficiencies in cross-cutting research areas, but the recent change makes clear that UVA is home to distinct, strong research and education programs in the civil and systems disciplines.
“Civil, environmental and systems faculty remain highly committed to UVA’s culture of collegiality and pursuit of ideas, as evidenced by their work together on many projects,” said Jennifer West, dean of the engineering school and the Nancy and Neal Wade Professor of Engineering and Applied Science.
“I commend our faculty for trying something new, and for speaking up when they felt the direction needed to change. This is the heart and soul of innovation, and because we have demonstrated our willingness to take strategic risks and grow from the experiences, I am confident that good things are in store for both programs.”
Harris does see good things ahead. We asked him about his vision for the future of his department and field.
Why did you want to lead the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering?
We have some outstanding scholars in this department whom I am very excited to support. I view this as a service role more than anything else and that service plays out by elevating the profiles of others. We have new faculty building exciting research programs around the built and natural environment, but we also have senior faculty working on large-scale grand challenges that cross disciplines and leverage interdisciplinary collaborations within the school and beyond. I hope to keep fostering these kinds of projects to strengthen our department and gain more national recognition in the work that we do.
What is your overarching vision for the department?
For me, the core mission of all that we do, both in undergraduate education and graduate research, is educate leaders in civil and environmental engineering. But my hope for the future is that we rebrand or re-image what civil and environmental engineering looks like.
Civil engineering is evolving to adapt to modern society. So that includes the design and management of smart and sustainable infrastructure systems, both of which are oriented towards people. Both civil and environmental engineering have always done that, but we haven’t been as successful in showcasing the human-centered impact of what we do. We’ve showcased that we make concrete, we design and build roads, and manage engineering solutions for our water resources, but we do so much more. The “more” is that we actually design engineered infrastructure — built and natural — systems for people.
What changes are you planning for the department?
We’d love to add more students. Showcasing what civil and environmental engineering really looks like is an opportunity to bring in students who maybe think one thing, but once they hear the details of what we do, they become interested in our field.
For example, a number of our faculty are associated with the Link Lab, which is a multidisciplinary research center for cyber-physical systems. We’re actually one of the larger UVA Engineering groups affiliated with Link Lab, and most of our faculty are working on smart cities and smart infrastructure technologies that have a strong data science and computer science orientation.
Smart technologies, which allow us to manage the built environment through internet-connected devices, such as sensors and actuators, are modernizing our infrastructure. So a main strategy is to highlight that we create civil and environmental engineering solutions for the future of our society.
It’s still early, but we’re also considering an environmental engineering degree program. Our bachelor’s and graduate degrees are civil engineering, even though we are the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
Students, especially at UVA, care about societal impact. What bigger place to have an impact than on the environment and the quality of the world we live in? We may also draw students from the College of Arts & Sciences and other schools to take some of our courses to add an engineering perspective to courses they’re taking outside of the School of Engineering and Applied Science.
What do you think are the biggest challenges in civil and environmental engineering, and how do you propose addressing them?
They fall into two broad camps, one being aging and deteriorating infrastructure. That’s a long-running problem, but the more time passes, the worse it becomes. We need to be smarter than the traditional approaches of trying to fix something that’s falling apart. Smart cities help address this by using sensing methods to inform data-driven decision processes within our community. And we’re involving communities to help provide the perspective of the end-user as part of the infrastructure design and management.
The other part is related to climate change. Civil and Environmental engineers really sit in the driver’s seat of what we can do with engineering solutions to help mitigate the effects of climate change.
The whole profession of civil engineering is building infrastructure systems for public good. If you’re dealing with rising sea level, we have to build infrastructure to accommodate that, but we can also try to slow climate change. For example, Professor [Andres] Clarens is working on technologies to minimize CO2 production in the manufacture of cement and strategies for using our built and natural infrastructure systems to capture carbon.
And we need agile systems that can respond to evolving natural hazards. This isn’t related to climate change, but Professor [Osman] Ozbulut researches smart systems for earthquake engineering, designing self-centering, restorative systems that allow buildings to withstand earthquakes.
What did you mean by “involving communities”?
Community involvement comes in in a lot of places, but we focus mostly on the smart cities side of things, where we’re building technology based on community needs. It sounds strange that we haven’t done this well in the past. We have, it’s just that our historical engineering solutions did not always effectively integrate the community perspective in the final decisions. So some of our recent efforts have included interdisciplinary collaboration with social scientists and have focused on how community voices are brought to the engineering decision-making table.
Some of our faculty have worked on collaborations with the Equity Center as an example, and we’ve partnered with the Center for Civic Innovation here in Charlottesville.
How has your research prepared you to lead the department at this time?
My training is in structural engineering, most of it in sensing, testing and experimental methods on large-scale infrastructure. But we don’t do a lot of large-scale testing here, so I’ve adapted, which has taken me in different directions. Most recently, I’ve been working with digital twins, which leverages the work that I’ve done in structural health and condition monitoring of bridges. The idea of digital twins is to use computer model representations of our infrastructure systems along with strategic sensing to aid in future prognosis of the systems’ behavior under different scenarios.
Historically you could do an experimental test on one component or system and that one test is pretty expensive. We’ve made a subtle shift that builds off confidence in our modeling abilities. We can forecast if something is worth testing, that it’s worth putting sensors in this location because we have information to inform a better strategy going into the testing.
As a researcher I think I fit right into what our department does. I view myself as a contributor to the overall direction that we’re going.
You were here when civil and systems engineering combined into the Department of Systems and Environmental Engineering, and you became the chair of ESE before it split back into two departments. What positives came out of that experience?
I think the future of civil and environmental engineering will have a systems bent to it. Systems engineers design and integrate component systems to work within larger complex systems, and civil engineers have to have the same kind of “systems thinking” to manage our large, complex and interconnected infrastructure systems. Our department’s experience during the ESE era is ultimately added value for us. Our faculty and students learned by working in these spaces and we continue to benefit from our relationships, which drive collaborations between our departments.
Do you have a final message you want people to know about CEE at UVA?
We’re extremely excited to have this unexpected opportunity to re-image civil and environmental engineering. Civil is the oldest engineering program at UVA and we’re one of the oldest in the country. It’s great to get back to our roots but also to paint the picture of civil and environmental engineering of the future. I don’t know if we would’ve been able to do that as effectively without going through the transition to ESE and then coming back out of it.