Professor: Mary Roth ’83
Chair: Simon Cameron Long Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Department: Civil and Environmental Engineering
Years at Lafayette: 27 plus four years as an undergraduate
Received Chair: 2006
Song: “Defying Gravity” from the musical Wicked
Connection to Chair
My chair was established by the Board of Trustees. I found some information in Skillman’s Biography of a College: “A gift of $100,000 endowed the chair of civil engineering in memory of Simon Cameron Long, Class of 1877, general manager of the Pennsylvania Railroad. He had been a member of the Board of Trustees since 1908. A group of his friends raised some money for the endowment in his memory. Part of the money was raised during the million dollar campaign that occurred at that time, and the rest secured by subsequent gifts.” The first chair was in 1921 and the name of that professor was Frank O. Dufour. So the 100th anniversary of professors being in this chair will be in 2021. I don’t know how we are going to celebrate. I didn’t realize until preparing for this interview that the 100th anniversary was approaching.
Connection to Song
I song I picked is “Defying Gravity” from the musical Wicked, and I picked it because it is about taking risks. I see having a chair allowing me as a faculty member to take more risks, pedagogically, in my research, and in the collaborations I have with other faculty both here on campus and away from campus. The witches in the musical take risks by deciding not to follow their destiny. It think it is Elphaba (the Wicked Witch of the West) who decides she really wants to do something different, so she tries to convince her friend Galinda (the Good Witch) to leave with her, to make a change, to make a difference, and not to follow what’s been scripted for them by the wizard.
Connection to Women in Engineering
As a woman in engineering, given the time I started in engineering, I have been one of a minority of woman who’ve come through, and so all of us in some way, particularly in the 1970s when I started at Lafayette and in the 1980s and even in the present, have been part of a minority. And certainly as faculty women are also a minority. So defying gravity and taking risks and taking a path that’s a bit different or not scripted is what women in engineering do.
Connection to Tenure
The journey of becoming a faculty member in engineering has been fun. It hasn’t always been easy; there has been some challenges with respect to what you are doing and how you are doing it in the classroom. It’s hard to have models when I never had a woman faculty member in engineering in all my various years of schooling. So it is a little bit different. Is it easy? I’d say it’s challenging, fun, and rewarding. It’s not always easy, but it’s not overly difficult.
Connection to Liberal Arts
As a Lafayette graduate, I certainly benefitted from taking engineering in a liberal arts environment by being able to study engineering in a great program, but at the same time to be involved in theater, music, the arts, and the things that kept me thinking about life in new ways. I think we continue to do that at Lafayette. We allow our engineering students to participate in all areas of the liberal arts, which is a huge benefit to the students. It’s also a benefit to the student in arts, humanities, and social sciences to have the engineers on campus; they get exposed to the types of things engineers are doing and the types of questions engineers are looking at. More recently we have done a lot more work with initiatives like Engineers without Borders and site-specific work in Honduras and New Orleans, and the liberal arts students are involved in those projects and begin to understand how engineering is really about empathy, thinking about what the problem is, and learning about the people who are going to be benefitting from the solution in addition to coming up with an answer to a problem or a question. It benefits our liberal arts students to see that engineering is not just about widgets, tools, and wrenches. It’s really about trying to understand people and their needs, and then trying to meet those needs as well as we can.
Connection to the Classroom
By having the chair, I have been able to take risks in the classroom pedagogically, primarily with technology. It allowed me to try out some new things that I wouldn’t have done necessarily. I have been particularly interested to make sure the classrooms are inclusive and open. That we are using and taking advantage of the world of knowledge that’s out there and new technology. One of the things I’ve done is to use iPads and Apple TV to make sure the classroom is really interactive and highly discussion-based. That students can bring in their own technologies, whatever that may be, their tablets or computers, and use those in classes in ways that support what we are trying to do and learn. The use of iPad in the classroom actually did end up serving as a model for campus. I used it for about a year, and then I worked with a group of other faculty who got a technology grant, and we tried using the iPad and Apple TV combination in introductory classes across campus. So I was using it in Introduction to Engineering and a First-Year Seminar, and other faculty in my group were using it in the areas of religion, economics, and biology.
Connection to Students
Some of the risks I’ve taken in my research include bringing in students and supporting students when I’m not quite sure yet where the research question that we’re looking at is going to go or whether it’s going to be funded, so I have used my chair funds to help support students both with some of the equipment they are going to be using or some of the supplies and sometimes with even being able to stay on campus during breaks if they are foreign students or unable to stay on campus without some extra funding. We have used the funds to kick off a few projects. I’ve got one going now with a biology professor where we are doing some work with the use of bacteria and soils. And I have also used funds to try and take students further. So one of my students who has been working on this project is now doing an honors thesis, so I am using some of the chaired funds to pay for the equipment she needs for that. So we are taking a risk to see if we can find some new information on how water flows through these soils that have been treated with these bacteria.
Connection to Conferences
I think endowed chairs often use the funds to help themselves and others in the research—supporting students, supporting the work they’re doing, and supporting travel. I have also used the funds to help support myself and students to travel to conferences we might not be able to go to otherwise. That’s been very exciting for me and good for the students—the exposure they get is great. In particular, a number of years back, I went to an American Association of Colleges and Universities conference and ended up finding out about Project Kaleidoscope, which is a group of faculty across the nation working to improve education in STEM fields. I got involved in a number of projects through them, and I now have become involved in their summer leadership institute as one of their mentors and leaders that trains younger faculty to take leadership positions.
Connection to Colleagues
One of the things I’ve used the endowment for is to allow myself to take some risks with the junior faculty. If they have an idea that they want to pursue, and it would be beneficial for them to have a collaborator and colleague on that project, I can use funds to support my part of that project. It can help them get a project completed. I have done that with faculty in my own department and faculty in other departments.
Connection to Research
One of the risks we took in one of the most recent research projects I’m working on is a project with Professor Laurie Caslake in biology. Initially it was a risk. We first got funding for this work in 2004. We were the first faculty to get National Science Foundation (NSF) funding to work with bacteria, or biological processes, to change the engineering properties of soil. We definitely took a risk doing that project because we had no idea what was going to happen when we started adding bacteria to soils and then feeding them. But we came in at the very beginning of what became a very fruitful area of research across the nation. So there is now a new Center for Bio-mediated and Bio-inspired Geotechnics. It is funded by the NSF. In our current research we are working with the NSF to create on a grant that is a little bit different than normal. We are looking at a research question here at Lafayette involving the permeability of soils and looking at controlling the permeability of soils by using bacteria. What’s unusual is we also included in the grant the ability for our students to spend time with the researchers at the Center for Bio-mediated and Bio-inspired Geotechnics. So our students work with us during the academic year and then spend their summers working with research teams at the center. Being able to take that risk, talking to the NSF, and establishing a different type of research proposal is something I appreciated being able to do, and part of that was funded by my chair.