Cockrell School of Engineering

After years of planning, the Cockrell School of Engineering launched a new undergraduate degree in environmental engineering this fall.

The new degree offers undergraduate students the opportunity to learn from more than 20 faculty members from the department of environmental and water resources engineering. A graduate program has been in place for some time and is currently ranked No. 4 in the nation by U.S. News & World Report.

The inaugural class of the undergraduate program includes 65 freshmen, 10 more than the department initially aimed to have enrolled, said Sarah Shields, academic advising coordinator for civil, architectural and environmental engineering. There are also 16 transfer students, all from the civil engineering program.

Civil engineering junior Savanna Smith is pursuing an environmental focus and said she would have been interested in the environmental engineering program if it had been offered earlier.

“I would rather spend my time here taking classes that will be more applicable for me,” Smith said. “Civil (engineering) is so broad, and there’s just not the time to be able to delve that deeply into the sub-disciplines.”

While it was initially thought that the new offering would lead to a decline in enrollment in civil and chemical engineering, this has not been the case.

“On the civil side, I haven’t necessarily seen that trend,” Shields said. “The number of applications for civil is still trending up.”

She added that this may indicate that the program is drawing students to UT that may not have otherwise considered the University.

Freshman environmental engineering student Griffin Harper said the program influenced his decision to attend UT.

“I was really excited to see that UT had this program because I’ve always been interested in engineering, and I knew UT had a really good engineering program,” Harper said. “So seeing that they were opening up a new environmental program made me really excited.”

Although current first-year students have not yet begun environmental engineering courses, the department is offering a brand new optional seminar led by Charles Werth, Bettie Margaret Smith Chair in Environmental Health Engineering , to introduce students to areas within the field.

“(The seminar has) been really eye-opening in showing us some of the things we may do in the future as environmental engineers,” Harper said.

The degree plan also allows students to take electives geared toward their specific interests within environmental engineering. Students can choose from four focuses including: air, climate and energy, sustainable water systems, containment and fate transport, and water resources and the environment. They may take classes in civil, architectural and chemical engineering to fulfill these focuses, as well as electives from the College of Natural Sciences.

“(The department) is trying to see what other things around UT we can integrate in with this program,” Shields said. “The focus is on interdisciplinary studies. They want students to not feel like they’re locked into engineering-only classes.”

While nearly every engineering major has a dedicated student organization, the environmental engineering program does not currently. Shields says that students are currently trying to start a UT chapter of the national organization American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists.

Even with the absence of a dedicated environmental engineering organization, Shields said the students have really come together, something she credits to the seminar class.  She said they bond over their classes and some have even volunteered together to help victims of Hurricane Harvey.

Harper agrees that there’s a strong sense of community within the program.

“It’s a great community. We all have very similar ideas about what we want to do in the world,” Harper said. “We all pretty much agree on all things sustainable and environmental.”

Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

Former NASA mission leader Michael Watkins will become the next director of the Center for Space Research at the Cockrell School of Engineering.

After working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for 22 years and leading teams for many missions, including the Cassini and Curiosity missions, Watkins will assume leadership at the Center for Space Research in July.

“My experience at NASA gave me a very deep understanding of the how space missions are really developed and implemented, which will help us successfully propose new instruments and missions,” Watkins said in an email.

The center focuses on using space-based data to learn about Earth itself, as well as the interior of other planets,according to Watkins.

“The best place to study the Earth as a planet is from space since satellites can observe the entire Earth essentially all day, including over deep jungles and over the ocean, over Antarctica and those places that would be almost impossible to constantly observe from here on the Earth,” Watkins said. “Satellites really provide our best scientific data.”

Todd Humphreys, assistant professor at the center, said the center’s focus can impact research into topics like climate change.

“A lot of what we understand about Earth and how it’s changing comes from space,” Humphreys said. “It’s much better in some cases to research about space than to scratch the surface of the Earth. By gathering data from space satellites, we have data that is useful in the climate debate because those data are stable and span decades of research.”

Humphreys said he believes Watkins’ experience at NASA will benefit the program overall.

“I think he’s going to bring a lot of good connections and a head for finding the right big problems to solve,” Humphreys said.

Noel Clemens, chair of the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, said Watkins will continue the advancement of the center’s satellite research program and expand into new areas of research.

“We expect Watkins to continue the center’s focus on remote sensing of the Earth from space but also to expand its mission to include planetary missions, increased emphasis on small satellite development and increased collaboration with Earth scientists,” Clemens said in an email.

As the climate continues to change, satellite-based sensing of the Earth will become increasingly important, according to Clemens.

“CSR’s signature satellite program, GRACE, is making important measurements that show the ocean levels are rising, the ice sheets are receding and the magnitude of drought in California,” Clemens said. “When coupled with advanced computer models of the water cycle, the data provided by CSR will help scientists predict how climate change will impact water sources for cities and agriculture.”

Photo Credit: Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin | Daily Texan Staff

Sharon Wood, the dean of the Cockrell School of Engineering, was elected president of the American Concrete Institute last week.

ACI is a nonprofit company dedicated to spreading educational resources about concrete and providing expertise for construction projects. Wood said she decided to run for president because the position provides the opportunity to influence the future of the entire institute.

“My primary objectives are to increase the value of ACI membership and define the relevance of ACI within a competitive, global concrete community,” Wood said.

Wood said she initially joined ACI because the organization aligned most closely with her research interests. 

Wood has previously held multiple leadership roles within ACI, including chair of the Technical Activities Committee and International Advisory Committee. Wood said she believes her past positions in ACI have prepared her for the president position.

“Serving as a technical committee chair and guiding the consensus process in developing technical documents taught me to listen to people who did not share my opinion and to compromise,” Wood said. “Listening and compromising are essential qualities for serving as president.

Although her presidency will prove to be demanding, Wood will retain her position as the dean of the engineering school.

“Balancing the roles of dean and president will certainly be a challenge,” Wood said. “I will schedule my international travel during the summer or between semesters, and I may not be able to accept all the invitations that I receive.”

Tedmund Chua, public health junior and president of the Gamma Beta fraternity chapter at UT, said he believes presidents need to promote a combination of stability and change in order to be effective. 

“An effective president at any level, whether it be for a club or an entire university, has a certain drive and motivation to change the organization for the better,” Chua said. “An effective president also realizes that changing certain systems just for the sake of change will usually have negative consequences.”

Members of the Cockrell School of Engineering and Seton Hospital received the South By Southwest Interactive Innovation SciFi No Longer award Tuesday for their research about the detection of skin cancer.

Biomedical engineering associate professor James Tunnell and Seton Hospital physician Jason Reichenberg worked with a team for seven years to create an optical probe device that detects melanoma and other skin cancer legions faster and more cheaply than current methods are able to do.

Reichenberg said currently, the most common way to detect skin cancer is via a biopsy, which is when a small piece of tissue is removed to be tested. That process has minimal pain and limited side effects, but its cost discourages some people from having irregular areas on the skin examined, he said.

“Most often the pain is from the [anesthetic] injection before, soreness afterward and the scar that forms,” Reichenberg said. “The [process] is usually about $150 for the procedure and $150 for the lab fee.”

Austin Moy, biomedical engineering postdoctorate fellow, said the team’s research combines several different techniques, which allows the computer to capture more images of skin cells than before. Moy said the techniques are light-based and harmless. 

“Our system incorporates three different optical spectroscopy techniques into a single handheld, probe-based device,” Moy said. “Each technique individually has been used in other research projects by other groups, [but with our device], all three techniques are in one system, and the data for each technique can be acquired simultaneously with a single computer.”

Reichenberg said the probe works by using small light waves to take an optic image of the skin. Once the computer captures the graphs and patterns, they look to determine which outputs are cancerous and which are normal. 

“All current techniques for humans or computers to look at the moles are only focusing on the appearance of the spot,” Reichenberg said. “This device is looking ‘inside’ of the spot to see what the biology of the spot is [and] how it is growing.”

In the future, the information that is now available through the probe will be more useful to clinics than the information provided by current methods, Reichenberg said.

Tunnell said the team’s research will increase practical applications for spectroscopic technology.

“This probe, which is able to combine all three spectral modalities, is the next critical step to translating spectroscopic technology to the clinic,” Tunnell said in a statement.

In this semester finale of The Daily Texan podcast, hosts Anthony Green and Madlin Mekelburg discuss the past week in news including student-led protests against the Eric Garner ruling and UT’s involvement with a company known for using sweatshop labor. The team also discusses APD receiving official police body cameras and the gender imbalance within the Cockrell School of Engineering.  

Nicholas Estep is a doctoral student in the Department of Electrical Engineering who serves in the Air Force. The device his team has developed can transmit and receive signals on the same frequency at the same time.

Photo Credit: Mike McGraw | Daily Texan Staff

UT researchers at the Cockrell School of Engineering recently developed a smaller and more efficient radio wave circulator, which they say could significantly improve telecommunication.

According to Nicholas Estep, electrical and computer engineering graduate student and lead researcher for the project, this new device can transmit and receive signals on the same frequency band at the same time. The research, which was published in Nature Physics in November, found that the device is practical and inexpensive. Estep said the device could improve the efficiency of wireless communication.

“The biggest advantage of this device is that it is comprised of passive components that are conductive to CMOS fabrication techniques, instead of bulky, expensive magnetic materials,” Estep said. “We can potentially incorporate our design in a larger, more complex integrated circuit at minimal cost.”

Estep said the project — funded by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research — started with a magnetic-free circulator theory from Dimitrios Sounas, a postdoctoral fellow in the engineering school who worked on the research. According to Estep, it took a year for the team to build a prototype of the device.

“With this technology, we can incorporate tunable nonreciprocal components in mobile platforms,” Estep said.

While magnetic-based circulators have been capable of transmitting and receiving signals on the same frequency, such technology can not efficiently be incorporated in wireless devices, according to Estep. Estep said that, because his circulator does not use magnets, it could be used in cellphones and other devices.

“The thing about this device is that it is magnetic-free, and it is also scalable and capable of circuit integration, which means it can potentially be placed in wireless devices,” Estep said.

Estep said this device is the first experimental device of its kind, and technology companies have shown interest in it. 

“We have introduced a completely different circulator,” Estep said. “It is a big step from what we have been using in the past 60 years.”

Andrea Alu, electrical and computer engineering associate professor, said in a statement that the researchers are also bringing this prototype to other areas of science and technology.

Construction contractors work near the Cockrell School of Engineering Thursday afternoon. A UT student reportedly disrupted a nearby construction site last Friday. 



Photo Credit: Ethan Oblak | Daily Texan Staff

A UT student reportedly stole items from a construction site last week near the Cockrell School of Engineering. According to UTPD’s Campus Watch report, construction workers said the student ran through the site Friday and UTPD officers found a construction truck that had been disturbed. UTPD discovered the student blocks away with items believed to be from the truck.

Despite incidents like this one — which is still under investigation — the University routinely takes precautions to secure construction sites on campus.

The UT System Office of Facilities Planning and Construction oversees construction sites on campus. OFPC director Bob Rawski said most major construction projects are contracted by outside companies, which are responsible for enforcing safety and security requirements at their construction sites. 

“Our construction contractors by contract have care, custody and control of their construction sites,” Rawski said. “They are required to erect a fence around the entire perimeter of the site with locking gates and to monitor access into and out of the site.”

Despite incidents like the one at the site, Rawski said thefts are not common at construction sites on campus. 

“Our contractors have experienced some occasional thefts from their construction sites, but this has not been a pervasive problem,” Rawski said. 

According to Rawski, there are currently seven OFPC-managed major capital construction projects under construction at the University. Most of these projects are contracted by companies such as Hensel Phelps, which has worked on the San Jacinto Residence Hall, the Frank Erwin Center, and is currently involved in building the Dell Medical School. Hensel Phelps is also in charge of the construction site near the Chemical Petroleum Engineering Building, where the theft took place. 

Rawski said whether a project is contracted by an outside company depends on the project’s size and the construction techniques needed. 

“Major capital construction projects managed by OFPC are contracted through outside construction companies,” Rawski said. “Minor projects managed by campus groups, such as Project Management and Construction Services, may be done by outside contractors or by internal construction groups, depending on the size and nature of the work.”

UTPD spokeswoman Rhonda Weldon said UTPD regularly patrols campus construction sites to try and prevent thefts.

“In general, the construction sites are University property and are part of UTPD’s regularly scheduled patrols,” Weldon said. “If criminal activity is witnessed or reported, UTPD responds and investigates as appropriate.”

The incident last Friday is still under investigation.

Fred Beach, assistant director for energy and consumption, discusses China’s energy consumption on campus Thursday.

Photo Credit: Rachel Zein | Daily Texan Staff

Surpassing all other countries, China continues to demand the most industrial energy consumption, according to Fred Beach, assistant director for energy and technology policy for the Cockrell School of Engineering.

Beach spoke Thursday on China’s continued success in leading the area of major energy sources as part of the University’s Energy Symposium. He said he focuses his studies on the relationship between China and the global energy demand.

“China’s energy consumption has doubled in 10 years,” Beach said. “China is now number one.”

Beach said the reason that China has such a big lead in the energy industry is because of the country’s large population. With more than 1.3 billion people living mostly on the eastern coast of the country, China has the largest population in the world.

China is not just a leader in the coal business but practically dominates it, Beach said.

“China consumes more coal as a nation than the rest of the world,” Beach said. “It was like someone hit a switch, and they decided to take over.”

This was possibly because of the Chinese government wanting to raise the quality of life of its people, according to Beach. 

“All of the world’s people have every right to live and consume energy like you and I do,” Beach said.

According to Beach, when added to the country’s total population, this consumption rate becomes dangerous because the population then becomes an energy problem. Beach said the number of citizens burning coal as their source of energy in their own homes is a major contributing factor to China’s consumption rate.

Beach said the world should be concerned about China’s rate of energy consumption and use of fossil fuels because an end result could be an increase in global temperatures, causing sea levels to rise and a climate to change

Petroleum engineering senior Gordon Tsai said he liked how Beach broke down the material.

“[It was] interesting how they compare to the U.S.,” Tsai said.

Chemical engineering senior Dylan Gust expressed the same sentiment and said that it was very informative to him as well.

“It was great hearing the macro-perspective,” Gust said. “Knowing this information will aid in my studies.”

Laxminarayan Raja, professor in the Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics school, received a $1.4 million grant to be used to further Raja’s research in plasma technology.

Photo Credit: Michael Baez | Daily Texan Staff

A $1.4 million investment from the U.S. Department of Defense will go toward a Cockrell School of Engineering professor’s research to further understand the properties of plasma.

Laxminarayan Raja, an aerothermodynamics and fluid mechanics professor, researches the different components of plasma and how they relate to the study of aerospace and the engineering of spacecrafts. Plasma is considered the final state of matter. 

“You take a block of ice and when you heat it, it becomes liquid. Heat it a little more, and it becomes gaseous. And plasma is when you take that gas and heat it even more,” Raja said.  

Raja, who studied in India and later moved to the U.S. to attend graduate school at Texas A&M University, said this grant money will expand his research into new areas that have not been previously studied. 

“This is a research area that is potentially going to be very important in going forward in the future,” Raja said. “Not many engineers work with this type of research, and I’m actually one of the first who are starting to do so.”

Raja said he hopes the investment will help create new plasma-based materials to develop more real-world applications of plasma.

Noel Clemens, department of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics chair, said Raja is a valuable contributor in the field of engineering, specifically in plasma research. 

“[Raja] is an expert in plasma modeling … and very innovative,” Clemens said. 

Vivek Subramaniam, an aerospace engineering graduate student, said he worked with Raja for a year and learned important skills from him. 

“His research is genuine,” Subramaniam said. “There’s so much research already done specifically in this area that he focuses on doing something new by connecting these ideas in a way no one else has thought of.”

Raja said studying plasma is important because it can further the understanding of technology in everyday life.

“Fluorescent lights, computer screens and cell phones all are possible because of plasma research,” Raja said. “They are important because we use them every day.”

Raja will also work with professors from Stanford University, Tufts University, Pennsylvania State University, the University of Washington and the University of California-Los Angeles to do some of the research.

Photo Credit: Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin | Daily Texan Staff

Editor’s Note: Sharon Wood took over as dean of the Cockrell School of Engineering on Sept. 1. Starting October 2013, she had served as interim dean after current Provost Gregory Fenves’ promotion. The Daily Texan editorial board sat down with her recently in the first of a number of interviews with the University’s 18 school and college deans to sound her out on a number of issues of concern to students. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

The Daily Texan: What would you say your main goals are for Cockrell as you get started with this new position?

Sharon Wood: We have a lot of traditional classes now where it’s lecture-based, and I don’t think that’s necessarily the most effective in trying to engage students in engineering. We want to move to having more project-based classes and hands-on learning opportunities. The trouble is right now, we’re constrained very much by our facilities. So when the EERC [Engineering Education and Research Center] opens, we will be able to have new labs that the students will be able to use for this ... That’s the number one goal, is really to try to enhance the educational experience for the undergrads.

DT: And how about for graduate students?

Wood: The north tower is going to be focused on interdisciplinary research, and right now, if you have an interdisciplinary team of faculty, we’re so tight on space. It’s hard to get all the grad students together. They’re in their departments, but they’re doing interdisciplinary research, so they don’t have as many interactions as they really should. 

DT: Could you tell us a little bit more about the importance of the EERC?

Wood: The EERC is really essential for us right now because we’re basically beyond capacity of all of our facilities. We had ENS, which they’re going to start tearing down in a couple months, where we had essentially large empty spaces — almost an entire floor — because we couldn’t provide the power for it ... We were trying to do cutting edge research in a building that just couldn’t accommodate it.

DT: It’s very commonly known that the number of women in science majors is a lot lower than men, so what are you doing to help close that gap?

Wood: Both last year and this year, we have an all-time record high of female undergraduate students in the Cockrell school, and the percentage of female students is a record high ... Our Women in Engineering Program, which has been around for about 25 years, has been incredibly successful in reaching out to K-12 students, showing them that engineering is an exciting career opportunity ... Sometimes you can attract women to come into engineering, but then they get discouraged, so [Women in Engineering runs] ... all kinds of programs to help women, support women throughout their entire time here, so that they build a community ... The school for many years has been really aggressive in trying to find female faculty members, because if you’re a young women coming into the school, and all the role models are male, you start questioning, “Well, should I be here?” but we are in some departments, we’re up over 20 percent female faculty.

DT: So switching gears a little bit, what sort of collaboration do you hope to see between Cockrell and the new medical school?

Wood: We think there’s a tremendous opportunity to work with the Dell Medical School ... They’re just in the process of selecting department chairs right now ... They have to have kind of a sense of who will be hired before they can really start making commitments on research. But we do have opportunities for joint hires and that sort of thing, which I think will help build that synergy with the med school.

DT: What sorts of opportunities are available to engineering undergraduates who want to do research?

Wood: The model across campus is what Natural Sciences does. They have that Freshman Research Initiative program. We don’t have an organized program like that, but we do have a large percent of our students who are engaged in research in the laboratories ... The reason why research is exciting is because the solution isn’t known, and so the attempts you make and the path you take to get to a solution is almost as important as coming up with a solution itself.

DT: The whole state is pushing four-year graduation rates a lot. What do y’all do particularly in your college, because engineering is a very difficult major?

Wood: It is a difficult major, and I think the culture was, “Oh, if I finish in five years or six years, it’s not that big a deal.” So we’ve really tried to focus on four-year graduations ... We’ve taken a look at the courses where we have the highest number of students who get lower than a C ... We’re putting extra resources into those... They were all outstanding students in high school, and they hit the first roadblock, and they think, “Oh, maybe engineering isn’t for me.” We’re trying to show them that, “No, if you work a little harder, you can probably get through that, and you’re going to be a great engineer.”