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  • Domniki Asimaki
    Credit: Lance Hayashida/Caltech Office of Strategic Communications
10/10/2014 12:24:17

Seismology and Resilient Infrastructure: An Interview with Domniki Asimaki

Building homes and other solid structures on a dynamic, changing earth can be a very big challenge. Since we can't prevent an earthquake or a tsunami from happening, scientists strive to understand the impacts of these forces, and structural engineers try to build infrastructure that can survive them. And that intersection is where the work of Domniki Asimaki comes in.

Asimaki, professor of mechanical and civil engineering in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science, is interested in the behavior of geotechnical systems under the influence of forces such as wind, waves, and seismological activity. Using this information, she hopes to make predictive computer models that can lead to the design of an infrastructure that is resilient to natural and man-made hazards. The effects of natural forces on man-made structures can also help in the cost-effective design of infrastructure for sustainable energy harvesting such as offshore wind farms—a promising green energy solution.

Born in Greece, Asimaki earned her bachelor's degree from the National Technical University of Athens before heading to MIT for both her master's and doctoral degrees.

Although Asimaki only joined the Caltech faculty in August, she has been thinking about moving to Pasadena since her first trip to campus a decade ago. Recently, she spoke about her work, her hobbies, and what it's like to finally be at Caltech.


What will you be working on at Caltech?

I am interested in the response of soils and foundations to dynamic loading, with emphasis on earthquakes. The work exists at the interface between civil engineering and earth and atmospheric sciences. Specifically for seismic loading, my research is trying to translate the output from simulations done by seismologists into input that engineers can use to design stronger structures.

In general, geotechnical engineering is an old field. Now we know a lot more about how soils behave, and that extends from the foundations of a house to the foundations of a bridge to nuclear reactors to dams. But that knowledge has been disconnected from advancements in earth sciences, and this gap has, in turn, hindered the integration of these advancements into structural design practices. I think it's an area of opportunity.


How does this work provide a link between the scientists and structural engineers?

Traditionally, structural engineers designed buildings using empirical data—like actual data from a previous earthquake. Today, with more than half of the global population concentrated in areas prone not only to major earthquakes but also to severe droughts and more extreme climatic events such as sea-level rise, there is an ever-increasing need to improve these empirical models, incorporate new, sustainable construction materials, and to build stronger, more resilient urban environments. I think the big promise of seismological modeling is that rather than using empirical data to make decisions about which ground motions buildings should be designed against in the future, we can actually run real earthquake scenarios in a simulation.

This can help provide a real prediction of the shaking against which the structural engineers can design buildings—provided, among other things, that seismologists have information about the soils on which their structures are built. And that's the gap that I'm hoping to fill.


How does this work translate to the harvesting of wind energy?

There is growing interest in offshore wind farms to be used as a source of sustainable energy, but since it's still pretty new, we don't have domestic experience about the best way to build these wind farms. We want to understand how the foundations of offshore wind turbines behave under the mix of forces from the rotor, from the waves, from currents and tide, from wind—regular wind or hurricane wind—and how all of these different types of dynamic loading affect the behavior of the foundation. We also want to understand how the behavior of the foundation, in turn, affects the stability of the wind turbine's performance and capability to harvest energy.

This specific application of my work is a fascinating direction for me. It is an opportunity to ask why design models work and how can we maximize performance capabilities and minimize cost. People like myself with an engineering background, but also with scientific curiosity, can work in areas like this and set the performance and design standards from scratch. But because the energy-harvesting industry is just starting out, we need to make it innovative while still financially feasible.


We have a lot of seismology expertise at Caltech. Was that a factor in your decision to come here?

It's a big part of my research interest, and so Caltech has always been the place that I felt I should be. It is a unique place in the sense that it's small enough so that different disciplines are closely connected. And there's a role that I can play, bringing research programs together. It has all the key players that I need in the same space, and it provides a great opportunity for us all to work together and build a seamless research continuum, from seismology to resilient infrastructure monitoring and design.


Are there any other reasons you're looking forward to living in Southern California?

Because it's gorgeous! I've never had the opportunity to have such nice weather, which is good because I love to swim, and the pool here is beautiful. I actually went to the pool on campus on the second day that we moved here. I hadn't even started yet, and I said, "I'm new faculty. I promise. I can prove it." And the guy who runs the show there, John Carter, was nice enough to give me a visitor pass so I could swim.

Do you have any other outside interests?

I love to cook. Elaborate cooking, from traditional Greek to exotic Asian cuisine and lots of other things. I am adventurous in my cooking but very traditional at the same time because I make everything from scratch. To graduate from MIT was a little easier than to graduate from a Greek mother.

Written by Jessica Stoller-Conrad