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Lafayette senior Erin O’Brien of Carlisle, Pa., a Marquis Scholar enrolled in a dual-degree program in civil engineering and International Studies, will spend Jan. 19-25 in Oslo, Norway, on a National Science Foundation-funded trip to exchange information about how the United States and Norway conduct environmental site assessments.

Mary J.S. Roth ’83, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, selected O’Brien to conduct unfinished business from the past academic year, when Roth pursued research in multi-electrode resistivity testing, a method of studying the soil and rock materials below the ground surface, at the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute in Oslo. O’Brien is using the balance of an NSF grant awarded for Roth’s research, which also received funding through a Fulbright Grant.

“She’s following up on something that I didn’t get to when I was in Norway,” Roth explains. “One thing the institute expressed interest in was interaction concerning how the United States does environmental site assessments. Erin will give a presentation on what we do and will learn about their approach for a brief paper she will write comparing the two.”

Roth chose O’Brien because of her major in international studies and excellent performance in an environmental site assessment course developed by Roth and taught by Arthur Kney, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering.

O’Brien is honored as one of the nation’s top undergraduate civil engineering students in the current (December 2001) issue of the national magazine CE News. She is among 40 students profiled in an annual feature called “Spotlight on Star Students.” Subscribers to CE News include 50,000 private practice owners, firm principals, project managers, and other licensed professionals in the civil engineering industry.

“I love the Lafayette civil and environmental engineering department, and I was thrilled to hear that it was chosen as one of the best in the nation,” says O’Brien. “I have been greatly aided by the skill and commitment of my wonderful professors, the support, encouragement, and ingenuity of my fellow students, and the dedication of the staff.”

A recipient of Lafayette’s Carroll Phillips Bassett Prize for Civil Engineering Juniors, O’Brien has been a key contributor in a number of distinctive academic collaborations.

As a participant in the EXCEL Scholars program, she teamed with David Brandes, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Roger Ruggles, associate professor and head of civil and environmental engineering, on development of a hydrologic Geographical Information System database for the Bushkill Creek watershed. In EXCEL, students collaborate closely with faculty members on research projects while earning a stipend. O’Brien’s project registered data with the Lehigh Planning Commission’s GIS, allowing correlation of spatial trends in hydrology, stream chemistry, and sedimentation with factors such as topography, geology, land use, and soil type.

She was also a member of a Lafayette student team that took third place in the Pennsylvania-Delaware Region of the 2001 National Concrete Canoe Competition, held April 28 at Peace Valley Park, Lake Galena, just north of Doylestown, Pa. The group accomplished this feat despite the fact that Lafayette has not fielded a team since 1997.

This summer O’Brien served an internship with Greenhorne & O’Mara (G & O), a civil engineering firm that specializes in highway design. O’Brien worked from May 24 through the start of classes in August at the company’s Mechanicsburg, Pa., office on the transportation team, which is responsible for the design of roads, ramps, interchanges, etc. The Mechanicsburg office also specializes in traffic engineering, environmental engineering, and structural engineering.

“I learned some of the basics of highway design, and I gained some good experience creating digital drawings using Microstation, a computer-aided design program similar to AutoCAD,” says O’Brien. “I also learned so much just from watching my coworkers and asking a million questions about everything.”

A member of the Lafayette chapters of the Society of Women Engineers and the American Society of Civil Engineers, O’Brien volunteers her time for the Bushkill Stream Monitoring Program. She has studied abroad in Spain and Belgium, and is proficient in Spanish.

As a Writing Associate in the College Writing Program, O’Brien assists students with their writing assignments in a First-Year Seminar called Biology and Society, taught by Bruce A. Young, associate professor of biology.

She is an active volunteer in sustained programs of community service that Lafayette students conduct each year under the auspices of the College’s Landis Community Outreach Center. She is captain of the Poverty and Community Development team, which oversees six community service programs, including the prison-tutoring program, which she personally heads.

A Bible study leader for Lafayette Christian Fellowship, she has served as a campus tour guide for the admissions office.

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. Roth was named Engineer of the Year for 2000 by the Lehigh Valley chapter of the Pennsylvania Society of Professional Engineers. She was named 1999 Engineer of the Year by the Lehigh Valley section of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Also that year, she also received Lafayette’s James P. Crawford Award for excellence in teaching.

O’Brien’s trip continues Roth’s tradition of including students in her research. During the fall semester, she supervised Michael Lestingi ’04, a mechanical engineering major from Tallmadge, Ohio, in an EXCEL Scholars project surveying the nation’s engineering schools to determine how they teach ethics.

Lestingi proposed the project after taking the course Professionalism and Ethics, which he describes as “one of the main ways Lafayette engineering students are challenged to consider the ethical and professional decisions they will have to make in the future.”

“Amazingly, previous research has found that only half of all engineering schools require that all undergraduate engineers take an ethics-related course,” says Lestingi. “Lafayette shows its dedication to its accreditation requirements and to education in the liberal arts tradition by having a course on the subject. Dr. Roth and I are trying to find ways to make that course even better.”

Lestingi considers Roth a role model inside and outside of the research setting. “She is approachable and caring, all the while being determined and focused.”

Roth has involved several students in her sinkhole research through funding from the National Science Foundation. Some presented their findings at the Multidisciplinary Conference on Sinkholes and the National Conference on Undergraduate Research.

“Lafayette is the place to come for a quality education with personal attention,” says Roth, whose work as a geotechnical engineer also involves designing foundations, dams, and tunnels with regard to each site’s soil and rock. “I love to teach here because I get to know my students as individuals. I try to find the strengths in each one and help them use those strengths to be successful in my courses.”

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.”

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