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Mary S.J. Roth, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Lafayette College, has received two honors highlighting her groundbreaking research and exceptional dedication and achievement as a teacher and mentor of undergraduate students.

She is the recipient of a Fulbright Grant to conduct research in Oslo, Norway, with the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute. In addition she has been named 1999 Engineer of the Year by the Lehigh Valley section of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

A 1983 Lafayette alumna, Roth has reached the top of her field after returning in 1991 to teach and conduct research at the college where she received her undergraduate engineering education.

“We’re delighted that Mary was given a Fulbright fellowship that will allow her to continue her fine research in Norway,” says Michael A. Paolino, director of the engineering division. “She is one of several talented young faculty members who represent the future of engineering at Lafayette. We are confident that as a result of Mary’s research as a Fulbright Fellow, she will return to Lafayette with a wealth of information to share with her students, and with a renewed vigor in her already outstanding teaching. Mary is certainly a credit to the engineering division and to Lafayette.”

Roth’s research and teaching interests include subsurface investigations of soil. Her research has focused on locating sinkholes using equipment called a multi-electrode earth resistivity tester. Multi-electrode resistivity testing is a method of studying the soil and rock materials below the ground surface.

“It’s using electric current to determine what’s below the surface,” explains Roth, who will have the added challenge in Norway of working with frozen soil. “There are other methods of finding out what is below the ground surface which are quite expensive and involve disturbing the ground. These methods involve making a lot of borings, or probes. Earth resistivity gives more information and it is particularly useful in clay soils, which are common around here and in Norway.”

With funding from the National Science Foundation, Roth and her students have spent a great deal of time in the last two years researching this method’s reliability in investigating sites for subsurface features that cause sinkholes, formed when water dissolves porous bedrock, creating a void into which materials above collapse.

Roth will depart in July for a full year in Norway, where she will continue evaluating potential geotechnical applications of multi-electrode resistivity testing. The Norwegian Geotechnical Institute, one of world’s most prominent research institutes in Roth’s field, invited Roth to come to Norway because the institute has recently acquired its own multi-electrode earth resistivity equipment and is interested in evaluating whether this testing method will be useful in Norwegian soils. Roth’s work as a geotechnical engineer also involves designing foundations, dams, and tunnels with regard to each site’s soil and rock. She has provided private consulting services for a number of years, including work in dam rehabilitation.

A top researcher in her field, Roth is perhaps the only geotechnical engineer conducting critical analysis of earth resistivity as an investigation tool. She has recently published in the proceedings of the International Sinkhole Conference, the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Geo-institute Conference, and the First International Conference on Geospatial Information in Agriculture and Forestry, and other leading academic journals. She serves on the Geoinstitute’s National Committee for Safety and Reliability and the National Committee for Geophysics in Engineering.

One of Roth’s top priorities as an educator is including students in her research projects. Five students have worked with her on sinkhole projects alone. In the case of Brian Guzas, a senior from Westford, Mass., this led to a trip with Roth to a symposium on geophysical applications to environmental and engineering problems. Carrie Mackey, a senior from New City, N.Y., joined her at an International Sinkhole Conference. In all she has worked closely with more 15 students on research projects.

“My approach varies,” she explains. “Sometimes I recruit a student, and sometimes I wait until there’s a knock on my door. I look for someone with a lot of initiative who can work with equipment for long periods of time. My philosophy is to give students a lot of freedom so they feel very responsible for the project. I’m not looking over their shoulders all the time, although I make sure we’re well trained in what we’re doing.

“It’s important to give students as much freedom as possible to find their own insights, which can be very valuable,” she adds. “This past summer, for example, Brian predicted the location of a subsurface void based on the resistivity test results. We hired a drill rig to confirm the location and Brian got to oversee all the drilling operations.”

Last May Roth received Lafayette’s James P. Crawford for excellence in teaching. The award honors James P. Crawford, who has taught in the department of mathematics since 1957. Among the classes she teaches are Surveying and Engineering Measurements, Soil Mechanics, Engineering Ethics and Professionalism, and Foundation Design.

Her teaching philosophy is focused on having a high level of interest in her students while staying excited in the classroom and current in her field, she says.

“I just like students,” she explains. “It’s fun getting to know them and to work with them. I really appreciate what I got as a Lafayette student in terms of one-on-one attention from faculty. I didn’t find that at the schools where I received my advanced degrees.”

Lafayette’s engineering program is distinctive in that its percentage of women students – consistently 25 to 30 percent – far surpasses the national average of approximately 17 percent. “One of the reasons there’s such good gender balance is that we provide an engineering program within a liberal arts school,” says Roth. “Women students like schools with a strong program outside of engineering. We attract and recruit students because of that fact.”

Lafayette’s engineering students are highly sought by graduate engineering programs and employers, adds Roth. “Right now, our students are recruited to go to top graduate schools and get their way paid,” she says. “I even received a thank you note from a graduate professor for educating his student.”

After graduating from Lafayette, Roth earned a master’s of science degree from Cornell University and a Ph.D. from the University of Maine. In her free time, she enjoys spinning, weaving, and playing the hammered dulcimer.

Categorized in: Academic News