Engineering students in Christchurch (New Zealand) get hands-on experience working with the Christchurch project to rebuild the city following the earthquake in 2011. We interviewed Alessandro Pallermo, who has been a senior lecturer in structural engineering at the University of Canterbury College of Engineering since June 2009.
Why did you first study engineering?
“I studied engineering because I always liked science and turning theoretical concepts into practical problems.”
And what path took you to the position you’re in now?
“I studied at the Technical University of Milan, Italy where I gained my Master’s in the design of reinforced concrete structures. Then I started the PhD in seismic engineering at the same university while I doing some consulting jobs.
“I came to UC as post-doc in 2004-2005 after which I returned to Milan where I was appointed Assistant Professor. In 2008, I applied for a position here at UC and started as a senior lecturer in 2009.”
What advice would you give to a prospective student wanting to boost their application?
“My advice is always to do what you are passionate about. Think about what really stimulated your interest during your previous studies and think about what you want to become.
“Engineering is a fascinating discipline because you can solve technical/practical problems and at the same time know that your contribution has a tangible impact on the society in which we live. But passion is the foundation of any discipline. Without that, it will be an ordinary job and you will not make a difference.”
Is there anything you wish you had known before you began?
“Yes, job prospects. What am I going to do? What are the opportunities? A lecturer told us briefly, but good practical examples from key practitioners can be more effective. At UC there is a strong connection with industry which allows students to find out more about future employment through careers fairs and practical work experience.”
Tell us about the relationship between your engineering department and the Christchurch rebuild.
“The College of Engineering is highly involved in the Christchurch rebuild. We are in regular contact with the key engineers at CERA (Christchurch Earthquake Renewal Authority) and SCIRT (Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team).
“Our recent research outcomes have been used to implement technical guidelines for assessment, retrofit and repair of building infrastructure. Specifically, our major contribution is on mitigation, given the uncertainties of earthquakes, how can we make our building environment resilient? Our college is also world-leading in low-damage seismic resistant technology. Given the lessons learnt from the Christchurch earthquakes, practitioners are now prepared to implement this new technology in the rebuild. More than 20 buildings have already been constructed.”
In what ways does it benefit an engineering student to be able to interact with a real project like this?
“A student understands our involvement by practical examples that many of us use during the lectures. Many third professional (final) year projects are linked with the Christchurch rebuild.
“Students know some outcomes of their project may be used by end-users like SCIRT or CERA. For example, one group is looking at the innovative aesthetic design of Dallington pedestrian bridges. Another group is doing a detailed assessment of the Ferrymead bridge (testing piles) and looking at the design with low-damage technologies.”
What difficulties do engineering graduates tend to face?
“Some universities tend to ‘spoon feed’ their students, therefore when they start a job they find themselves shocked that they need to be independent and capable of solving problems without being too demanding on their senior engineers. I think that our students are well prepared for work and firms are happy with our Bachelor of Engineering (Hons) programme and graduates.”
What is the best thing about working in civil/structural engineering research?
“Right now the best thing is the strong interaction between industry and academia. The Christchurch earthquakes revealed that many things that have been done in the past can now be improved on and UC had already designed the solutions to some of these problems. The earthquakes have been a great wake up for the engineering community.
“Researching about bridges, buildings, pipelines, etc will put any student at the frontier of earthquake engineering, simply because our research now has a strict bond with real life. The Christchurch earthquakes are really closing the gap between academia and industry.”
Author: Clare Burgess, College of Engineering, University of Canterbury (New Zealand).
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