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Marie Berninger ’06 (Gaithersburg, Md.) is using modern methods to contribute a new addition to centuries of knowledge about a renowned French church.

The mechanical engineering major is analyzing the structure of the nave of the 12th-century priory church of Paray-le-Monial, one of Burgundy’s most important Romanesque churches, using powerful computer software by ANSYS.

With the guidance of Leonard Van Gulick, Matthew Baird Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Berninger has created a preliminary model of the nave in ANSYS that simulates the weight of the stone-and-mortar building materials as well as stress points in the structure. This spring she will use the software to create a second, more detailed model.

The main goal, she says, is to study what Van Gulick calls the “state of stress” of the building. That is, she’s looking for areas that might prove vulnerable to structural failure. She hopes her investigations will also provide new insights into another French church, the abbey church at Cluny, or Cluny III, after which the church at Paray-le-Monial was modeled. Much of Cluny III, which was the world’s largest church until St. Peter’s was built in Rome, was destroyed in the 19th century and, according to Van Gulick, little documentation exists as to what Cluny III was actually like from a structural standpoint.

“By analyzing the church at Paray-le-Monial and its problem areas, you can make some conclusions about the problem areas of the other church,” Berninger explains. She theorizes that the largest problem areas in Paray, therefore also in Cluny III, are the windows in the upper portion of the nave walls. Her model will help determine if adding these windows was a daring move, structurally speaking, that made the cracking of the building material more likely.

Berninger and Van Gulick hope to publish a scholarly paper based on the thesis work.

“We have an environment at Lafayette where students and faculty members feel comfortable working together on projects like this that are really collaborative,” Van Gulick says.

“I’m thrilled to be working with Professor Van Gulick,” Berninger says. “He is a very qualified mechanical engineer who also is quite learned in architecture, art, and European studies. He runs an interim-session course in Northern Europe to study medieval architecture, so he really knows his stuff with this. He’s also very experienced with ANSYS.”

Berninger became interested in the architecture of Europe’s churches and cathedrals when she studied in Brussels, Belgium, for a semester as a sophomore. The following year she began working with ANSYS and took a course with Van Gulick focusing on the program’s capabilities and views increased fluency in ANSYS as a major benefit of her honors research.

“After the class, I realized that a project combining architecture and mechanical engineering in ANSYS would be really fun to do senior year. It’s a powerful program, and it can help me with a lot of professional work,” says Berninger, who plans to move straight into the work force following graduation.

“I would like to work for a company, potentially doing design engineering but also with opportunities to get a graduate degree,” she says.

Berninger is secretary of Ski and Snowboarding Club and a former varsity soccer player.

Honors theses are among several major programs that have made Lafayette a national leader in undergraduate research. The College sends one of the largest contingents to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research each year; 39 students were accepted to present their research at last year’s conference.

Categorized in: Academic News