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Professor Considers it Her Duty to Keep Students Excited About Engineering

By Kristin Duisberg
December 9, 2009

Erin Bell, assistant professor of civil engineering. Mike Ross, Photo Services.

Note: This is one in a series of profiles of 2009 Faculty Excellence Award recipients.

Anyone wondering if Erin Bell finds it hard to be a woman in the male-dominated field of structural engineering will get their first clue when they step into her office, where photos of her two preschool-aged children outnumber diagrams of bridges two to one. A self-described “girly-girl,” Bell didn’t know she wanted to study civil engineering until high school, when her father, a steel fabricator, took her to dinner in Boston’s North End and explained to her the way a structural engineer used math and science to calculate the size and spacing of the restaurant’s exposed ceiling beams.

“That was it for me, I was hooked,” Bell says. “I knew that I wanted to be a structural engineer.”

Two decades and a PhD later, Bell is equally at home on a work site in hard hat and boots, collecting data on a bridge under construction, and in a classroom in 3-inch heels, teaching engineering statics to 110 UNH sophomores. Whenever possible, she brings the two worlds together, taking her students in her structural design classes to lay brick or observe a tension-controlled bolt.

“I consider it my duty to keep my students excited about engineering,” she explains, “and the excitement comes from the hands-on application of the concepts.”

Now in her sixth year at the University, Bell has distinguished herself in both teaching and research. Students laud her energy, enthusiasm, accessibility, and genuine interest in their success. Colleagues admire her commitment to not only educating the next generation of engineers, but particularly serving as a role model for young women interested in the field.

In 2007, she became only the second UNH civil engineering faculty member to receive a prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation, which she has used to support her research on new methods of incorporating structural modeling, instrumentation, and non-destructive testing to assess a bridge’s structural health. The results of her work may help avoid bridge collapses by giving owners more objective information relating to bridge health.

“I am excited about what Erin brings to our department,” says Jean Benoit, chair of the department of civil engineering. “She has a great desire to learn and do what’s right for the students and the University.”

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