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The recipient of a prestigious Fulbright Grant supporting scholarly research abroad, Lafayette engineering professor Mary S.J. Roth is spending a year of study in Oslo, Norway, with the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute.

The Fulbright grant recognizes Roth, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, as a leader in her field and an exceptional teacher and mentor of undergraduates. A 1983 Lafayette alumna, she 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.

Roth’s areas of specialty include subsurface investigations of soil. Her research has focused on locating sinkholes using multi-electrode resistivity testing, 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,” she explains. “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 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.

In Norway Roth is continuing her evaluations of potential geotechnical applications of multi-electrode resistivity testing. The Norwegian Geotechnical Institute, one of world’s most prominent research institutes in her 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. Last year she was named Engineer of the Year by the Lehigh Valley section of the American Society of Civil Engineers. 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.

“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, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Mechanical Engineering and former 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.”

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, of Westford, Mass., a summa cum laude civil engineering major who received his diploma at the College’s 165th Commencement in May, this led to a trip with Roth to a symposium on geophysical applications to environmental and engineering problems. Carrie Mackey of New City, N.Y., a Class of 2000 geology major, joined her at an International Sinkhole Conference. In all Roth has worked closely with more than 15 students on research projects.

“My approach varies,” Roth 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. “Last 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.”

In 1999 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