Curiosity creates…better bridges

Posted on August 27, 2020

The next time you’re passing over a bridge, take a moment to consider just how much wear and tear it endures in a year.

Rain and sun beating down on it in the summer. Snow and road salt in the winter. Freezing and thawing in the shoulder seasons. And, through it all, constant traffic.

The potential harm that could occur should a bridge fail can not only cause major traffic headaches – it could be fatal to those on the deck. That’s why bridges must undergo rigorous testing before being built to ensure they can withstand the heavy demands placed on them.

Thanks to some cutting-edge research equipment at Queen’s, and dedicated graduate students like Laura Tauskela, MASc’20, Sc’17, the construction industry is finding new paths to building better bridges.

Laura Tauskela

“My research was aimed at gaining a better understanding of bridge deck behaviour – that’s the part that comes in direct contact with de-icing salt and vehicles,” she said. “Some studies show using a pulsating load, which has been industry practice, doesn’t give the most critical loading case. In other words, maybe we haven’t been testing bridges the right way.”

While working on her masters in Civil Engineering, Tauskela had the unique opportunity to help break in the Rolling Load Simulator – a new piece of research equipment which is intended to simulate the forces borne by a bridge when vehicles drive across.

This device is one of just a few in the world and it helps graduate students like Tauskela and her thesis supervisor, Amir Fam, to subject the type of reinforced concrete used in bridges to moving loads. Tauskela, who completed her masters thesis earlier this year, was the first Queen’s Engineering student to use the machine on a test specimen that she designed and constructed herself.

“As this is a new multimillion-dollar machine, we were writing the manual as we were going,” she said. “There were challenging moments, but anytime someone would ask about my research project I would get excited all over again.”

Laura Tauskela

Much of the first year of Tauskela’s studies were spent preparing for her experiments: liaising with Ontario’s Ministry of Transportatiom, contacting suppliers, and getting ready to pour the concrete.

“When I finally got to watch the wheels go back and forth, it was such a cool moment to sit back and go ‘Wow...everything I’ve worked it is. It’s working,’” she says. “The hard work seemed worth it.”

Tausekela now gets to apply what she has learned with Jacobs Engineering Group’s Ottawa office. After graduation, she secured a position as an Engineer-in-Training working with their transportation structure team. Tauskela accepted the offer in January, with a May start date.

“I was worried that my job would be affected by COVID, but the transportation industry has actually been even busier than it was before and there has been no lack of work,” she says. “Most of my fellow grad students who finished around the same time have had luck in finding work.”

Even though Tauskela is no longer in Kingston, she still has fond memories of her many years in town particularly as a graduate student.

“I found it easier to get involved in the community as a graduate student versus my time as an undergrad,” said Tauskela. “I joined a recreational ultimate frisbee league, ran along the waterfront path often, and moved closer to downtown. I tried to take advantage of all Kingston had to offer.”

The Ottawa native was first exposed to the idea of engineering by her high school physics teacher, who noted her strength in math and sciences. When she was first considering an engineering degree, Tauskela visited Kingston and liked the common first-year and community atmosphere of Queen’s Engineering.

After deciding to focus on Civil Engineering, Tauskela had the opportunity to work on an undergraduate research project which connected her with Dr. Fam.

“When I was offered the opportunity to continue my research with him as a graduate student, the opportunity was too good to turn down,” she said.

With her graduate studies complete, Tauskela plans to continue working in industry, and put her mark on both the cities where her work will appear and on an industry where sustainability is not always top of mind.

“The nature of my research is trying to find better ways of designing bridges and tracking deterioration over time,” she said. “I am particularly interested in sustainable construction. The way of the future is more sustainable building materials, such as lightweight fibre reinforced polymers.”

To learn more about graduate studies in Civil Engineering, visit the department’s graduate studies page.