CLEMSON — A new graduate degree program that could help save lives and keep basic services running when disaster strikes is in development at Clemson University with $3 million in backing from the National Science Foundation.

Sez Atamturktur, the principal investigator and the director of the project, said that students enrolled in the program will learn how to predict vulnerabilities in the interconnected infrastructure systems that few realize depend on each other until one fails.

Sez Atamturktur (center) talks with Stephen Moysey (left) and Andrew Brown (right).

Sez Atamturktur (center) talks with Stephen Moysey (left) and Andrew Brown (right) about the $3-million grant the team has received through the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship Program.

For example, some Manhattan residents couldn’t evacuate after Superstorm Sandy because ATM machines and credit cards didn’t work, underscoring how failures in the financial system can cascade to the transportation system.

It can take weeks to rebuild after disaster, and infrastructure failures tend to disproportionately affect the poor. Students in the program will focus their research along the state’s Interstate 95 corridor, including an underserved area designated as a Promise Zone by the White House.

Anticipating trouble before it happens is expected to heighten in importance as weather becomes more extreme, a growing number of people pack into cities and commerce increasingly depends on globally-networked technology and supply chains.

“This is a new type of threat for the 21st century,” Atamturktur said. “Local infrastructure disruptions now have far-reaching consequences. Our project is about foresight and understanding what the vulnerabilities are before they happen and putting in place mitigation processes– eliminating vulnerabilities up front before they become problematic.”

The $3 million provides five years of funding and is South Carolina’s first grant through the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship Program. The types of infrastructure covered in the new program will be broad, including built, cyber, natural, physical, social and financial systems.

Atamturktur is the Distinguished Professor of Intelligent Infrastructure in the Glenn Department of Civil Engineering.

James R. Martin, chair of the Glenn Department of Civil Engineering, congratulated her on landing the grant.

Sez Atamturktur, who is in the center front row and wearing a dark blue dress, poses for a photo with the team that will be working on the graduate program they are creating with $3 million received through the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship Program.

Sez Atamturktur, who is in the center of the front row and wearing a dark blue dress, poses for a photo with the team that will be working on the graduate program they are creating with $3 million received through the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship Program.

“Dr. Atamturktur and her colleagues are creating a unique academic program that will prepare students for the emerging global challenges faced by society in the 21st century,” he said. “This has strong potential to catalyze a shift in graduate education in an area the U.S. government has identified as a critical challenge. Without question, this program will have global impact.”

Students in the new graduate program will learn to bridge the gap between experts who too often work in isolation from each other, Atamturktur said.

The differing jargon and mathematical models that experts use can lead to communication breakdowns that inhibit disaster planning.

“One thing we want to accomplish with this project is to build a community where you create a computer model for not only your own project or research team,” Atamturktur said. “You build a computer model to be shared and used and reused by a community.”

Students will also learn to incorporate human decision making into their simulations.

The infrastructure involved in their research delivers a wide range of services, such as transportation, energy and water distribution.

The new “Model and Data Enabled Resilient Infrastructure” graduate program will begin in fall 2017 and will be open to any Clemson University graduate student, regardless of background. Students will be able to work toward master’s degrees and doctorates.

“It’s a university-level effort,” Atamturktur said. “Everyone with similar research interests is welcome to join.”

Students will collect data about infrastructure resilience in communities along Interstate 95, where the vulnerabilities and number of marginalized communities are disproportionately high.

The area was among the hardest hit when a 1,000-year flood in 2015 caused $12 billion in damage to the state and left thousands with damaged or destroyed homes and businesses.

“Students will not only use the research in their dissertations but will also share their findings with affected communities to boost awareness of infrastructure resilience and support communities in action planning,” Atamturktur said.

The research along I-95 will encompass the state’s Promise Zone, which includes Allendale, Bamberg and Hampton counties and a significant part of Barnwell, Colleton and Jasper counties.

The Promise Zone program calls for investment in communities with a “collaborative federal role that is driven by partnership with local officials, and reliance on data and evidence to guide what works,” according to the White House.

The new Clemson graduate program resulted from a dialog among 30 faculty members across the campus from several colleges, including 18 who form the core of the group.

Co-principal investigators on the grant are all from Clemson and include: Jim Bottum, a research professor, the director of Clemson’s Center of Excellence for Next Generation Computing and Creativity and former chief information officer and vice provost for computing and information technology; Taufiquar Khan, a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences; and Martin.

Students can expect  a strong emphasis on collaborating across disciplines with students and faculty members.

“We were fortunate to have Dr. Russell Marion from the College of Education on our team,” Atamturktur said. “His expertise will enable us to not only train competent engineers and scientists but to immerse them in an enriching network of students. We will monitor how students network and how student interactions affect learning outcomes.

“It’s called social learning. Students will learn not only from advisors but also from interacting with other faculty and students. The student-faculty partnership will organically grow throughout their education.”

Tanju Karanfil, vice president for research, said Atamturktur and her team are creating a next-generation, engineering-and-science workforce that could save lives, especially in underserved parts of the world.

“Their innovative approach to graduate education is helping ensure that Clemson University, South Carolina and the nation stay on the cutting edge,” Karanfil said. “The research that students will do as part of the grant will help prepare them for careers in an area of national and global importance.”

Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, said the new program represents a bold and potentially transformative approach to graduate education in science, technology, engineering and math.

“Dr. Atamturktur has developed a graduate program that is innovative, evidence-based and aligned with changing workforce and research needs,” Gramopadhye said. “The award is richly deserved.”


This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under award number 1633608. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.