Natural disasters are devastating events, especially in densely populated areas. What Hurricane Katrina did to the people of New Orleans has been well documented. Laura J. Steinberg (M.S. ‘89, Ph.D. ‘93) would know. She was on the faculty of Tulane University when the storm struck.
Maybe it’s a coincidence that she is also one of the leaders of a new field within civil and environmental engineering known as Natech disaster research. Natech is the combination of nature and technological, and represents the study of natural disasters and their ability to devastate industrialized areas. Steinberg and fellow Natech researchers focus their efforts on the use of engineering to develop methods to reduce these impacts and clean up safely during and after the event.
“The area of Natech I work on is the vulnerability of industrial facilities to natural disasters like hurricanes or earthquakes,” said Steinberg, Dean of the L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Professor of Public Administration at Syracuse University.
“We also look at the environmental impacts of the release of toxic and hazardous materials, the difficulties in recapturing the contaminants, and mitigating their impacts,” Steinberg continued. “Cleaning up damaged industrial sites after natural disasters can be quite a challenge because there are usually so many other things going on.”
A year after Katrina, Tulane closed down its engineering department, so she joined the faculty of Southern Methodist University and was named one year later department chair in 2007. She became dean at Syracuse last year.
“It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” she said. “I work many hours a week interviewing faculty candidates, talking to our volunteer leadership and alums, going to evening functions, meeting with the faculty, and doing lots of travel. For example this June I’m going to Dubai to meet with a donor to discuss our construction internship for Syracuse civil engineers at his construction firm.”
One thing Steinberg is particularly proud of is her new Dean’s blog about engineering and engineering education.
While she still has vivid memories of seeing cows off Old Erwin Road and the dusty photographs hanging on Hudson Hall’s basement walls, she credits Duke’s location for helping her succeed in life.
“I learned a great deal from my friends during graduate school, not just about engineering but about how to be a better person,” she recalled. “I left the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area and came to a place filled mostly with southerners. They taught me gently and purposefully how to connect with people more easily. The rough edges I came down to Duke with became smoother. Without them, I would not have had the success I’ve enjoyed.”