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Jamie Padgett receives O’Donnell Award for infrastructure research

Photo courtesy Jeff Fitlow

By Riya Misra     1/31/23 11:24pm

Jamie Padgett, Stanley C. Moore Professor in Engineering, recently received the Edith and Peter O’Donnell Award, an accolade given out annually by The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas to notable researchers in the state.

The O’Donnell Award, which provides a $25,000 honorarium, acknowledges Padgett’s research in structural engineering, natural hazards and infrastructure resiliency. Padgett said that the majority of her work looks at the reliability of existing structures, such as bridges or transportation networks, and how to improve their functionality in the face of natural disasters like earthquakes or hurricanes.

“One thing that I really appreciate about [TAMEST] is that they’re looking for people who are doing emerging, exciting work in different fields,” Padgett, chair of the civil and environmental engineering department, said. “I feel really fortunate to represent engineering more broadly and perhaps help to bring some visibility to the importance of the civil and [structural] engineering domain, across the engineering disciplines.”

Padgett said that her career can be traced back to her childhood, where her interest in civil engineering arose from the combination of a Floridian hometown and family of contractors.

“I remember I was going out into projects in the field. That got me really excited about how you can start from nothing and have these large scale structures that impact society,” Padgett said. “There was always the constant threat of hurricanes striking the Atlantic coast. That got me really curious about how we can protect these large scale structures, and the people that use them or that are inside of them.”

Padgett also received a five-year, $1 million research grant from the National Science Foundation fellowship in early December. She said that while she appreciates the recognition, the two awards really showcase the successes of her larger research team. 

“I think what [the awards] speak to … is the decades of work that my research team and our collaborators have put into this field,” Padgett said. “I [may] get the fortune or the glory of having my name on it, but it goes very much to my research team.”

Kendall Capshaw, a Ph.D. student working in coastal petrochemical infrastructure with the Padgett research group, said that she credits Padgett for many of the research opportunities she and fellow researchers have received.

“Dr. Padgett is an incredibly innovative, motivational and supportive researcher and mentor,” Capshaw said. “She has cultivated an extensive and multi-disciplinary network of research collaborators, creating ample opportunities for her students to work on a broad range of projects within their interests … She is a great advocate for her students.”

One of the things she enjoys most about her field, Padgett said, is its capacity for social relevance, despite being an engineering discipline.

“Not only do we do our rigorous modeling of structures under these extreme loads, but we carry that work through community scale,” Padgett said. “If we’re going to make decisions on policy change or investment in major coastal protection that affects people in our communities, that’s the scale we need to be working on.”

Following the O’Donnell Award and the rest of her recent accolades, Padgett said she looks forward to continuing research that merges the conceptual and real-life applications of engineering.

“We’re also trying to work on problems that are not just theoretical but have true practical relevance and application to communities like Houston,” Padgett said. “We have been working on a project that will be continuing to look at improving [public safety] during flooding events, specifically related to safe transportation, mobility and navigating … I’m hoping to see those two veins, the theoretical model [of] development and improvement and boots on the ground practical applications that can benefit even in our backyard.”

Padgett said that she appreciates the platform that Rice provides researchers to conduct socially impactful work.

“Rice is a great place to do this type of research for us, both from a culture and setting perspective, a research perspective, but also appreciating and supporting this type of work,” Padgett said. “I think it’s a culture that values not only scholarship for scholarship purposes, but work that has an impact that’s important to society.”

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