National Engineering Group Honors UA Professor

National Engineering Group Honors UA Professor

By Jeff HarrisonUniversity Communications
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Chandra Desai
Chandra Desai

The Structural Engineering and Engineering Mechanics Institutes of the American Society of Civil Engineers has awarded its 2009 Nathan M. Newmark Medal to University of Arizona Regents' Professor Chandra Desai.

The award is given "for outstanding and seminal contributions for development and application of new constitutive models, laboratory test devices, and computational methods in geomechanics, structural mechanics and other areas in engineering." The selection committee noted Desai's success "in the area of computational mechanics, with emphasis on the finite element and finite difference methods, and material modeling."

Desai, a former head of the UA civil engineering and engineering mechanics department, is a nationally known authority on geotechnical and structural engineering, including how buildings, dams and other structures interact with soil and respond to seismic activity. He also has done innovative research in computer modeling and in fabricating innovative test devices.

Desai also developed the widely used Disturbed State Concept, or DSC, a unified approach for engineering problems that allows for modeling of engineering materials and the interfaces between structures and foundations.

He even has proposed how to fabricate construction materials, using powdered rock stimulants for lunar soil, to build structures on the moon.

Tribikram Kundu, also a professor of civil engineering and engineering mechanics and a longtime collaborator, said Desai has been successful "because he has gone outside of the traditional boundaries of civil engineering and  brought in other disciplines, such as mechanics and electrical engineering."

Desai and Kundu have partnered on a number of research grants, including a National Cooperative Highway Research Program - Innovations Deserving Exploratory Analysis, or NCHRP-IDEA, grant "to predict the remaining strength of concrete toward rehabilitation of infrastructure," and grants from the National Science Foundation to look at problems of reliability of computer chips in electronic packaging.

"This interdisciplinary approach has enhanced the knowledge of his graduate students, as well," Kundu said. Over the years, Desai has guided some 100 doctoral and master's students who have since gone on to significant positions in universities and private companies.

Desai's innovative teaching, research and professional  contributions have been adopted by academicians, professionals and students, both at national and international levels. His textbooks have pioneered new ideas for teaching at the undergraduate and graduate levels. He also is the founder of two international journals and one international technical association. 

Desai said he was gratified to win the award and that it reaffirms his nearly three decades of work at the UA.

"About two decades ago at The University of Arizona, we initiated and pursued interdisciplinary mechanics applied to various areas in engineering, such as geomechanics and structural mechanics because they strengthen the scientific base of geotechnical and structural engineering," Desai said.

The Newmark Medal is the second ASCE award in as many years for Desai, a rarity in itself. The award is named for Nathan Newmark, whose structural engineering and earthquake expertise was incorporated into the design of San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit System, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, and Torre Latinoamericana, still one of Mexico City's tallest buildings and a survivor of two major earthquakes.

In 2008 Desai also won the 2007 Karl Terzaghi Award, given by the ASCE's Geo-Institute. The Newmark Medal and the Terzaghi Award are among the highest honors given by ASCE, and  "reflect the multidisciplinary nature of Desai's work and its application in geomechanics and structural and engineering mechanics."

Desai, who joined the UA civil engineering faculty in 1981, also is, notably, the first faculty member at any university in Arizona to receive either of these awards.

Desai grew up in a small village in Gujarat state in western India and graduated in 1959 from the University of Bombay Victoria Jubilee Technical Institute with a bachelor's degree in civil engineering. He earned a master's degree from Rice University in Houston in 1966 and a doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin in 1968.

Desai's research integrates both fundamental and practical aspects of engineering that include mathematical modeling and testing to see how materials behave, information that is vital for finding realistic solutions to practical engineering problems.

The generality and unified nature of Desai's research has been applied to a wide range of interdisciplinary problems, including structures and foundations, slopes and dams, retaining structures, underground works, highway pavements, earthquake engineering, landslides, movement of glaciers and ice sheets that influence global climate, and reliability of computer chips in electronic packaging.

In a career that has spanned a half a century Desai has garnered a long list of awards from around the world, including the Indian Geotechnical Society, Germany's Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Czech Academy of Sciences, the Slovenian Geotechnical Society, the International Association for Computer Methods and Advances in Geomechanics and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, among others.

Desai also won the El Paso Natural Gas Foundation Faculty Achievement Award for teaching and scholarship at the UA.

He is the founding president of the International Association for Computer Methods and Advances in Geomechanics and founding editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Geomechanics, published by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Desai has written or coauthored more than 300 papers in refereed journals and conference proceedings, 20 textbooks and edited volumes and 19 book chapters. Because of the fundamental nature of his work related to computer methods and constitutive modeling, his textbooks and papers are used in other disciplines such as mechanical, aerospace and mining engineering. Desai's research in constitutive modeling for geomaterials has found applications in areas such as failure and reliability of microchip substrate systems in electronic packaging, and the movement of ice sheets on glacial sediments, called tills, which influence global warming and climate change.

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