Student Profiles

Want to know what it's like to be a UW CEE student? Meet some CEE undergraduate and graduate students.

April ShenApril Shen
MSCE Class of 2014

Structural Engineering
Robin GoldRobin Gold
MST Class of 2016
Sustainable Transportation
travis thonstadTravis Thonstad
PhD Candidate
Structural Engineering
Julie VanoJulie Vano
PhD Candidate
Water Resources
Kari WatkinsKari Watkins
PhD Candidate
Transportation Engineering
nicolette zhouNicolette Zhou
PhD Candidate
Environmental Engineering
Mandana AshtiMandana Ashti
MSCE Class of 2016
Transportation and Construction
steph AbeggSteph Abegg
Phd Candidate
Geotechnical Engineering
jeralee AndersonJeralee Anderson
Phd Candidate
Construction Engineering

April ShenApril Shen
MSCE, Structural Engineering, 2014

What made you choose to enroll in this program at the University of Washington?
I chose to enroll in the structural engineering program at the University of Washington due to the high caliber of students and faculty, the intensive yet well-organized curriculum, as well as the convenience and affordability of the school.

What questions or issues drove you to focus in this field?
My interest and passion for high-rise buildings and bridges drove me to focus in civil engineering. I was fascinated by how these structures were designed and built. As a structural engineer, I get to work alongside architects, and contractors from design to final completion. In addition, this field offers high rewards and the chance to see your own designs become reality.

What research have you participated in?
As an undergraduate research assistant at the University of Washington, I was able to be a part of the Accelerated Bridge Construction Research Project led by Professor John Stanton and Marc Eberhard. My experiences in the lab ranged from pouring full size concrete columns, testing materials using LabView, and recording/sorting data acquired from tests. This opportunity has given me a good understanding of the procedures used in research and development.

What are some of your favorite things about the program so far?

One of my favorite aspects of the program is the freedom to take a wide variety of classes that sparked my interest. During my graduate studies I was able to take classes in construction, mechanics, and project management. This has really allowed me to diversify my knowledge and stand out from other students.

What classes or lessons learned in the program have had the most impact on you? Have you used your new knowledge in your career?

The lesson I have learned that I would advise to new students is to take any opportunity provided to you. College is like a playground; you should try different things, diversify your skill set and find what you are good at. It also allows you to learn from your failures without the repercussions of the real world. Also, no company wants a dull 4.0 student, so take on leadership roles, network and make yourself marketable to the industry upon graduation.

Tell us about your internships. What were the highlights, and did you find it helpful to supplement your studies?

• Mangusson Klemencic Associates (Consulting): At MKA, I mainly worked on the design of structural components for high-rise and office buildings. Beyond the design experience, I got the opportunity to learn what it was like to work with architects during design and contractors during construction. A lesson to take home – whether it is expressing your idea, explaining your understanding, or just listening to other parties’ needs, good communication is essential and makes working together so much easier.

• Seattle City Light (Public Agency): I also interned at Seattle City Light where I focused on seismic retrofits/upgrade of buildings and electric utility structures. Since I was working for the City, many processes and design are done in specific ways which are typically different from what we learn in school nowadays (e.g. hand calculations versus computer analysis). My take away from this experience is that the city’s way of doing things is much more old-fashioned so being able to follow directions and ask questions when lost is important.

• Manson Construction Co.: I have also had practical experience in the construction side of engineering through my internship with Manson Construction Co. There, I got to work on a number of small projects from ferry terminal retrofits to designing formwork for the foundation of a Ferris Wheel. Through this internship, I was able to gain experience and understanding in many aspects of heavy construction (estimating, scheduling, and constructability) which have proven to be valuable in my career.

What are your plans for after graduation?
My plan after graduation is to find a job at a structural engineering company and utilize my skills acquired through my master’s program and previous experience.

What advice do you have for prospective students?
Competition is fierce in the real world, so take any opportunity in school to make yourself more marketable. I have seen too many classmates focus on nothing but homework, classes and exams. What really sets one apart from other students, are the experiences and risks one is willing to take on throughout college. It’s these kinds of experiences that will shape students into the desirable candidates that companies are seeking.

Robin Gold uw civil and evironmental engineering studentRobin Gold

Master of Sustainable Transportation, Class of 2016

What made you choose to enroll in this program at the University of Washington?
As a prospective graduate student, I was specifically seeking an academic advisor whose research emphasizes sustainability in transportation, with particular focus on public transit systems. Dr. Scott Rutherford's experience in these areas is extensive, and so I came to UW specifically to work with him. I was additionally impressed by the academic caliber of the transportation faculty as a whole, and the technological amenities of STAR Lab.

What questions or issues drove you to focus in this field?
I had gotten involved with the sustainable biodiesel movement at a local level, and become very interested in transportation alternatives that can help to both alleviate greenhouse gas emissions and improve social equity. My background is in physics, but I wanted to make a career change and focus my energy on researching and working toward a more sustainable transportation network.

What are some of your favorite things about the program so far?
Being a part of the Master of Sustainable Transportation program has really been an ideal fit for my interests, and both the quality of instruction and participation of classmates has absolutely met my expectations. I believe I'll be well prepared to pursue a career in sustainable transportation research or modeling after I graduate.

What classes or lessons learned in the program have had the most impact on you?
Joe Mahoney and Tim Larson's class on Climate Change and Energy was particularly informative with regard to the modeling and assessment of environmental impacts of transportation systems. Mark Hallenbeck's Intelligent Transportation Systems course was particularly thought-provoking as well. And Linda Boyle's Special Analytical Methods in Transportation was so inspiring that it led me to the decision to pursue a concurrent Master's degree in Statistics.

What are your plans for after graduation?
I would like to get a job in research or modeling related to environmental and social impacts of various transportation system scenarios, perhaps with a regional transportation authority, or at a full-time research institution.

What advice do you have for prospective students?
Your academic advisor can make or break your graduate school experience, so be sure to look not only at the school, but also at what advisor you might prefer to work with based on your particular research interests. Then contact that person before or during the application process to express your interest in working with them, and find out whether or not you are a good fit for one another. It's important to spend your time doing work that you are passionate about, and working with someone who supports your pursuit of your own academic goals is absolutely invaluable.

Anything else you would like to share about your experience?
Coming to graduate school in my early 30's after a number of years in the working world was a big step, I'm confident that I made the right decision to pursue my passion for sustainable transportation and prepare to build a new career in that field. I take great value from the things that I am learning, and have a high motivation to succeed. Being a nontraditional student can be very rewarding in that sense.

Mandana AshtiMandana Ashti
MSCE, Transportation and Construction Engineering, Class of 2016; BSCE '

What made you choose to enroll in the program?
I graduated with my undergrad in structural engineering, and I started working as a structural engineer for about a year and a half. Then the recession hit and I got laid off, so long story short, I went back to Iran for a little while, I worked for a company in Iran as a structural engineer. I worked on big transportation infrastructure projects, but I realized that I want to be more involved in the initial design aspects, in the entire thing. So I decide to switch to transportation and work as a transportation engineer instead. I realized I didn’t really know much about transportation, so coming back and getting my master’s would help.

As soon as I got accepted, I got a job offer as a transportation engineer 1. So it worked. And they’re ok with me working part time as I go to school.

How did you decide to become a civil engineer?
When I was a kid, back in Iran, my mom had this piece of land and she she was building an apartment complex. It was right next door to where we lived, so I basically saw all the construction phases, and I really liked what was going on. I remember my mom telling me, “I want you to be an engineer.” Back at that time, when I was 9 or 10, I started drawing a plan of what I was going to build in the future. It was settled in mind when I was kid that I wanted to build things.

When I was in Iran, I tried to get into university to do civil engineering, and the process over there is really different. Based on an exam and my score, they would choose my major for me, and I wasn’t able to do what I wanted. And then once I received my green card, it was a long process… when I was 19, we got this letter in the mail, we got this letter in the mail, “you can come to the United States.” That’s when I was like, ok, so I am just going to go over there and try to get into university and do what I really want to do.

And then when we moved here in 2003, within in a month I started college, at community college, and finished in 2007.

What have been some of your favorite things about the program so far?
The advisors. There was one advisor, I think she retired. She was wonderful. Even when I was at South Puget Sound, she told me exactly what classes to take, not to spend any extra money or waste any time, so that within two years I could apply to UW, I’m so grateful for that. We still have wonderful advisors.

For my undergrad, instructors. Some of them were really tough on me, but I appreciate that, actually. Professor Janssen, it was the first quarter I started here, he wanted us to write like a 40 page report, and it was really hard for me to write because it was in English, and I didn’t have much practice writing. He probably could have failed me for that class because I did so bad in my written reports, but in my exams I was doing really well, so he knew I knew what I was doing. I really appreciated that extra push, that you just have to do it although it’s hard.

During my grad school, I have no words to begin to explain what Steve Muench has done for me, him and Joe Mahoney both. They’ve just been wonderful, with the support. I know most everyone here would go out of their way to make people succeed. There’s a lot I could say.

What classes, experiences, or lessons learned in the program have had the most impact on you?
The fact that I can basically learn anything if I spend the time. It gave me that confidence. We went through a lot difficult classes and difficult tasks, and being able to come out of all of this successfully has given me this understanding and confidence in myself that no matter what they give, even if I don’t know it at work or anywhere, if given enough time, I can figure it out.

My graduate degree, the classes that I’m taking right now, it helps definitely to write about things and have my opinion. I’ve learned how to analyze things, and I guess that’s the most important thing about grad school.
Being able to learn things on my own, and knowing that I can, is one of the most valuable experiences and things that I learned from school.

How is it working and going to grad school at the same time?
As I take a lot of transportation classes, because I didn’t really know much about transportation when I started as a transportation engineer, I applied basically everything I learned during my first quarter here. Working with Steve here as a TA teaching was a wonderful experience. I would say yes, everything I learned here I was able to apply at my job, and again the confidence that comes with it. Also being involved, I learn about all the new things that are happing. We have conferences, we have seminars, I was way on top of everything that is happening just being here. Now that I think about it, what am I going to do when I’m not around, not in school?

What advice do you have for prospective students?
For graduate students, I think anyone who comes back or decides to do that needs a certain amount of experience working out there Being an undergrad, we have this idea of what we’re going to do after we graduate, and it might not turn out to be what we expect it to be. I think all undergraduate students need to go out and work in that field and see if they actually like what they’re doing.

For undergrad students, my advice is for people who are planning on coming here, I think being in contact with an advisor way ahead of time, maybe two years ahead of time, is the best thing they can ever do.

Nicolette ZhouNicolette Zhou
PhD Candidate, Environmental Engineering

What made you choose to enroll in this program?
My undergrad was in chemical engineering, and when I applied to grad schools, I applied to both civil engineering and chemical engineering programs, but I had always planned on eventually going into some form of environmental engineering, whether that was still through doing chemical engineering or switching. I did a research experience for undergraduates between by junior and senior year at UCLA in environmental engineering and it was awesome. We did water quality monitoring at Santa Monica pier, and we went to the beach every day. It was great.

Tell us about your research.

So my master’s and PhD, I’ve done them both here. The research that I did in my master’s is carrying over into my PhD and so I get to go really in depth. My research focus is on isolating bacteria from wastewater treatment plants, from the activated sludge portion of wastewater treatment plants. So a wastewater treatment plant basically works by the initial removal steps to filter out big stuff, but then the main treatment process of it is called activated sludge. There’s a lot of bacteria in it that can break down the waste and compounds that get into it. There’s all these bacteria in it that it was originally designed to remove, like nutrients and nitrogen and phosphorus. There are pharmaceuticals that are now getting into our waste because we take them, or personal care products, and other micro pollutants that we originally weren’t able to detect in wastewater treatment plants or their use wasn’t as common and now they’re getting into wastewater treatment plants. They’re also leaving in the effluence and they can cause negative effects on aquatic life in the surface waters that the effluence discharges to. We isolated bacteria from the isolated sludge portion of the wastewater treatment plant that’s able to degrade the micro pollutants. Our end goal would be to add the bacteria back into the activated sludge portion of the wastewater treatment plant and to bioaugment it to improve the removal of a certain micro pollutant so that there is less of it being discharged into the surface waters. Most of my work, it’s all been focused around that in some sense.

You were named on a patent application. Can you tell us about that?
The idea of bioaugmenting something is not a new idea, but the idea of continuously bioaugmenting into a certain system and the application of it is fairly new, so that’s what the patent is. It’s an enhanced biological trace level contaminant removal process. EBTCR. There’s an EBPR, so that’s enhanced biological phosphorus removal, so we kind of named it the same way. We’re proposing continuous bioaugmentation of these bacteria in wastewater treatment plants to improve the biological removal of these micropollutants or trace level contaminants that go by all sorts of names. The provisional patent was just filed and after my lab scale reactor studies, then we’ll file for the full patent.

What have been some of your favorite things about the program?
I love my research, obviously. My advisor is great, I love working with [Heidi Gough]. And my advisor from my master’s program was John Ferguson, and he passed away, and Heidi took over. They were, and are, both great. I learned a lot from them.

I’ve really enjoyed my classes. It was interesting, because my undergrad was chemical engineering so it was totally different. I hadn’t really had any biology classes and now my research is basically microbiology. So it was kind of a leap. It was fun, I liked shifting gears.

The professors are really helpful and great teachers.

What classes, experiences, or lessons learned in the program have had the most impact on you?
I would say the Valle, for sure. I got the Valle Scholarship and I went to Denmark and I worked with Jeppe Nielsen for nine months and did the proteomics work to identify the proteins and the genes that are involved in the degradations. We have a proteomics center on campus but the application for what we’re specifically looking at is kind of unusual and Jeppe is knowledgeable of that and we’ve had some collaboration in the past with him. I don’t think I would have done that work if I hadn’t gone to Denmark. I probably would have just focused on the bioaugmentation studies. I got to learn a whole different field that still boggles my mind.

What are you considering doing after graduation?
I originally wanted to be a faculty. It’s a lot more writing than I thought it was. I might do a post doc, and then potentially do research and apply for a faculty position, but most likely not. My goal would be to get a position at a national lab or in the R&D section of a company, because I like doing research, I really do enjoy that.

What advice do you have for prospective students?
For PhD, I guess it’s really important to get an idea of what your advisor is going to be like. It also depends on what kind of level of interaction you need. Definitely meeting with your advisor and seeing what they’re like, and how much they expect you to work.

I came straight out of my undergrad. I knew I wanted to do environmental, but I didn’t really know specifically what environmental I wanted to do. Be flexible, especially funding-wise, because you’re not always guaranteed to get [the project] you want, and the likelihood is, you’re going to end up loving whatever it is you do.

Travis ThonstadTravis Thonstad
PhD Candidate,
Structural Engineering

Why did you choose to enroll in this program at the University of Washington?
I looked at many of the universities on the West Coast for both my undergraduate and graduate studies. I toured many beautiful campuses and impressive facilities. What made me so interested in the program at the University of Washington was the high quality of research being conducted, the exciting potential implications of some of the projects, and the collaborative atmosphere created by the faculty. The UW has a unique program and I thought that I could succeed here.

What are some of your favorite things about the program so far?

I think my favorite thing about our department is its faculty. The community here is something that is very special about the program at UW. The professors are not only extremely knowledgeable, but are also very approachable. Faculty members, even ones that are not my advisors, have helped me tremendously with my research.

They have also been very accessible in my coursework. There is an unstated, open-door policy in the department and if you ask questions, they don’t just shoo you out the door - they spend time to explain the concepts and make sure that you understand what is going on in class. The faculty genuinely care about your success, and that has made a huge difference in my education.

Tell us about your research involving a bridge using new "earthquake resistant" technology.
Professors John F. Stanton and Marc O. Eberhard have been working for close to a decade now on precast bridge systems for areas of high seismicity. Precasting bridge elements, or building bridge components off-site in a production facility, means that bridges take less time to build on-site, which means less downtime to the motoring public. Precasting also has the benefit of greater worker safety. This project has been a huge undertaking and has included a lot of experimental testing. I was lucky enough to work on this project and help test a quarter-scale bridge at the University of Nevada Reno in their shake table facility.

The research is currently focused on a system that will be both fast to construct on site and is also more resilient during an earthquake. It involves using everyday construction materials, but in an intelligent way. Two of the issues that the system is trying to address is post-earthquake serviceability (is it safe to drive on) and reduced damage (how much money do we have to spend to repair it). The new system addresses these issues by using steel “shoes” on the ends of the columns, which reduces damage to the column concrete, and using steel cables like rubber bands that help snap the columns back into place after the earthquake is over.

We tested the 70 foot, two-span bridge specimen in July of 2014 and the results were better than we expected. We subjected the bridge to a suite of simulated earthquakes (up to 1.6g or 220% of the design level motion) and each time the bridge snapped back into place. At the end of the test, there was only cosmetic damage to concrete in the columns. We still have some things to work on, but we are hoping to develop design guidelines for the new system so that engineers in practice can use this new technology.

Has anything in your experience surprised you?
I think one of the biggest things I was surprised about in the structural engineering lab was how supportive the other students were. Even though I was working on a different project with advisors other than their own, people were always willing to help out. That atmosphere allowed me to learn about a lot more than just my own project, and I feel as though I have been exposed to a lot of active areas of research.

What experiences or lessons learned in the program have had the most impact on you?
When I came into the program I had some exposure and experience with manufacturing and construction, but my education had mainly focused on analysis and design. The process of designing experimental specimens and then constructing them in the lab was really an eye opener.

When you start to think about how YOU are going to build something, it changes your design philosophy considerably (and it gives you an incentive to make it easy to build). I think that perspective is something that will stick with me for the rest of my career. You can design the greatest system in the world only to find out that it is too much of a construction headache to be feasible.

What are your plans for after graduation?
I have a passion for teaching and mentoring students, and my advisors have been very supportive of me working with undergraduates during my time here. I also have been able to be involved in some great research while at UW and learn a lot about experimental testing and analysis.

After graduation I hope to work in the university system at a research institution. I think that the environment at the University of Washington has been outstanding for fostering my growth as an educator and a researcher, and I think that it has done a fantastic job of preparing me for a career in academia.

Kari WatkinsKari Watkins
PhD Candidate, Transportation Engineering

UW was an obvious choice for me because of the multi-modal high-tech environment in Seattle.  Here, we are surrounded by fantastic examples of transportation solutions and problems to solve.  The professors in the department do a great job of using the setting to bring examples to light and focus their research on local issues.  

My research focuses on understanding and affecting mode choice to develop a more sustainable transportation system.  Much of my current work is on OneBusAway, an open-source transit traveler information system.  The purpose of OneBusAway is to develop information tools for rider use, as well as undertake research as to the influence of these tools on rider perceptions.

Julie VanoJulie Vano
PhD Candidate, Water Resources

Before applying to the CEE Department at UW, I earned my MS at the University of Wisconsin's Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment, where I studied land-surface hydrologic interactions and land cover change.  I was also a Graduate Fellow at the National Academy of Sciences, where I gained insights into science policy related to water resources management and the constraints imposed by social institutions. These experiences made me increasingly aware of – and frustrated by – the disconnect between science and decision-making.    The UW's Water Resources Program offered me opportunities to actively participate in policy-relevant science and work towards bridging the gap between research and water management communities.

I've had great opportunities to participate in a broad range of research projects, such as investigating climate change impacts on water resources in the Puget Sound and Yakima River basins, and studying the sensitivities of Colorado River stream flow to changes in temperature and precipitation.  The faculty and staff are very supportive - I feel fortunate to be a part of a community of people who are looking out for my best interests.

My advice to prospective graduate students is 1) find an advisor that fits your interests and goals, and 2) look at the opportunities available beyond just those in the particular department you are applying to.  In addition to the quality classes I've had in CEE, I've benefited from taking classes in the Atmospheric Science Department and at the Evans School of Public Affairs.   This has really helped me expand my research community and diversify my skill set.

Steph AbeggSteph Abegg
PhD Candidate, Geotechnical Engineering
MSCE '10

I chose to pursue my graduate studies at UW CEE because of its respected program, excellent faculty, and variety of research opportunities. The geotechnical engineering group has the camaraderie and power I was looking for in my area of study. I am also an avid alpinist and photographer, having scaled hundreds of challenging summits in North America, so it was a great perk to be nearby my favorite stomping grounds - the beautiful and rugged North Cascades.

My research is part of a 3-year Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES) project investigating earthquake liquefaction initiation and effects. This project is an multi-institution project which includes researchers from Alaska, California and New York, and includes both analytical and experimental work. I have specifically been looking into identifying time-evolving ground motion intensity measures that can accurately predict the occurrence and timing of liquefaction, and to explore the use of timing information to improve the accuracy of predictions of the effects of liquefaction. This will inform more accurate design and emergency preparedness decisions in liquefaction-prone areas.

Jeralee AndersonJeralee Anderson
PhD Candidate, Construction Engineering
MSCE '08

True Story of UW-branded Self-Discovery: You know you’re an engineer if you think the world revolves around you because you defined the coordinate axis. So if you are considering coming here as an undergraduate or graduate student, remember that your education is what you make of it: but you define yourself by what you do with it.

It seems like just yesterday I made the decision to come back from the professional world to academia. After almost 4 years, it has certainly been a fun ride.

I confess I had no reason to apply to UW other than I had a couple college friends in the area. UW also was not my first choice since it required an out-of-state move, and tuition. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that took me about two quarters to find my niche in the Construction Engineering department. I haven’t looked back….well, ok, so I am still a die-hard structures nerd, even though my advisor and my work with Greenroads might suggest otherwise.

The Construction Engineering faculty is outstanding. I’ve been given so many opportunities that it would be impossible to state that it hasn’t been “worth it”: to come back to school, to leave my family, to go out on my own, etc. My experience here has changed my perspective on so many things and provided me with unlimited creative outlets that I’d never have had a chance to participate in otherwise. I’ve been able to teach, do research, and learn in a number of different environments and even outside the confines of my discipline.

What I have definitely found at UW is that there is a place in academics for exploring both the theoretical and the practical. This is important for at least two reasons: 1) by coming here you are given an avenue to make an individual contribution as soon as you find where your interests are, and 2) there is a dense support network available to help you contribute to the greater good in society. I find my experience here in the UW CEE department to be incredibly invaluable. It was a lucky choice for me and I hope it is for you too.