CEE Student Profile: Nicole Leo

Nicole Leo presents her research on “Post-Earthquake Fire Performance of Steel Building Columns” at the Fritz Lab Centennial Student Symposium.
Nicole Leo presents her research on “Post-Earthquake Fire Performance of Steel Building Columns” at the Fritz Lab Centennial Student Symposium Oct. 24, 2009.

Nicole has nothing but praise for Lehigh’s extensive laboratories and sociable environment.

Nicole Leo came to Lehigh University as a graduate student because of its convenient location, her fellowship offer, and the school’s “strong engineering research tradition,” she says.

A native of Brick, New Jersey, Leo obtained an impressive education relatively close to home. She earned a bachelor of science degree in civil engineering from Rutgers University and a master of science degree from Princeton through the mechanics, materials, and structure program of its civil and environmental engineering department.

With Rutgers being a large state school, and Princeton a small private one, Leo had a taste of both worlds before settling on Lehigh University.

“I’ve really had a very varied education,” Leo explains. “The focus on technical engineering was similar for Rutgers and Lehigh, while Lehigh’s laboratory facilities are more extensive. On the other hand, Princeton is more of a liberal arts school that considers engineering from a broader perspective, and is more focused on analytical work and design projects for research than actual experimental work. Their laboratory facilities are more limited for structures.”

Leo, who graduated with her Ph.D. in structural engineering from Lehigh on Jan. 17, 2010, has thoroughly enjoyed her time spent in the laboratory facilities at Lehigh. The research she conducted at the Center for Advanced Technology for Large Structural Systems (ATLSS) has done a great deal to expand her horizons.

“There’s huge space and tons of capabilities…it gives you a really unique research experience,” she explains. “The facilities are top-notch and allowed me to perform both large- and small-scale experimental research, along with the numerical research I do. ATLSS has capabilities that many other schools do not have.”

Lehigh’s impressive amenities are a great resource, but it is the constant presence of talented and dedicated students that takes the laboratory environment to the next level.

“There is always testing going on, so you can always find something interesting going on there,” she says. “The M.S. and Ph.D. students all have offices up at ATLSS, so there is always someone around if you want to bounce ideas off of someone, or just take a break and have lunch.”

In addition to the support she received from fellow graduate students, Leo found the faculty of the department of civil and environmental engineering to be a valuable source of guidance. She credits the professors, especially her adviser, Dr. Pessiki, as being both well-informed and supportive.

“I have found most the faculty to be very helpful and eager to assist me, whether I had a question about coursework or my research. [They are] very knowledgeable and if they don't know the answer to a particular question, they know exactly who to direct you to…” she explains.

Leo actually served as a member of the faculty in the fall of 2008 when she was enlisted to teach a civil engineering course on her own. She describes her unique opportunity to perform as a professor as a “wonderful experience,” and great preparation for the teaching that comes with an academic career.

Tom Braxtan and Nicole Leo consider the results of a reinforced concrete
column compression test conducted in the 5-million-pound universal machine
at Fritz Lab.
Tom Braxtan and Nicole Leo consider the results of a reinforced concrete column compression test. The couple met in a structural dynamics class at Lehigh and married Sept. 6, 2009.

“Many graduate students are teaching assistants or graders at some point during their studies, but few actually teach a full course…It gave me great insight into the responsibilities involved with teaching a course in its entirety,” she says.

As a graduate student, Leo’s work has been focused around her dissertation topic, “Post-Earthquake Fire Performance of Steel Moment Frame Building Columns.” She defended her dissertation in December 2009 after four-and-a-half years as a Lehigh student.

In preparation, Leo performed “small-scale and large-scale experimental testing on steel and fire protection materials,” as well as “finite element modeling of steel moment frame assemblages with earthquake-induced damage to the fireproofing during a fire using ABAQUS.”

With her career as a Lehigh student drawing to a close, Leo has begun applying for positions as an assistant professor in structural engineering.

“I've applied to quite a few schools, but it’s still very early in the search process for most schools, and some applications aren't even due yet,” she explains.

While Leo acknowledges it will likely be a couple of months until she secures a position, her goal is to be hired for the 2010 fall semester. With her impressive experience both in the classroom and the laboratory, there should be no shortage of opportunities for Nicole Leo.

“Lehigh has a great reputation for structures, and I think I am well-prepared for a career in academia,” she says.

Editor's Note: Manhattan College thought so, too. In August 2010, Leo joined its faculty as an assistant professor of structures in the department of civil and environmental engineering.