Civil Engineering Students Work with U.S. Department of Defense

By, Angelina Persaud & Lauren Raziano, Staff Writer & Social Media Editor

Several Manhattan College civil engineering students have been given a $560,000 grant from the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP) to perform geotechnical and environmental research in a partnership with the United States Department of Defense.

The Department of Defense (DOD) project aims to analyze the soils of old military testing grounds and determine if they can be restored and sold as residential and commercial recreational properties.

Led by Mehdi Omidvar Ph.D., associate professor of civil engineering at Manhattan College, and a team of other researchers at New York University and the Southwest Research Institute, the research team received an additional $1.8 million in federal funding for their project.

The project included the addition of ballistic testing facilities in the engineering school, located in Leo Hall, in order to carry out experiments and stay updated with modern testing technology.

“Our students have put together a vertical ballistic range in our lab, of which there are only a few others in the country. We have built instrumentation that allows us to employ coherent laser light to track the speed of fast moving ordinances in soil targets,” Omidvar wrote in an email to The Quadrangle.

The program has improved the technical aspect of the civil engineering curriculum through hands-on experience.

“This is a unique and multifaceted project which involves lab and field experiments, numerical simulations, and mathematical modeling. Students working on the project have the opportunity to observe experiments in the lab and the field, and then to simulate the problem numerically and analytically,” Omidvar wrote.

The rigorous process to secure the funding for the project was in large part due to the efforts of MC faculty and their desire to expand the research facilities for the students.

“The Chair of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, Dr. Anirban De, who is also a collaborator on the project, helped secure space for our experiments, and the Dean of the School of Engineering, Dr. Tim Ward, helped us with acquiring some of our experimental facilities. As a result, we are able to compete with top universities for federal funding, and perform at a level that is typically only observed at top Ph.D. granting institutions,” Medhi wrote.

Dylan Grace, a graduate civil engineering student, received his bachelor’s in civil engineering in 2020 and is one of several students currently working on the project.

“It’s a great partnership and there’s so many opportunities. It has enhanced the soils lab greatly and there’s so much the project offers for other students,” Grace said.

He also emphasized the importance of research programs to help students delve into opportunities outside the classroom.

“If I was to recommend joining the project to any students I definitely would get a lot of experience that would translate to working in the field, a lot of skills that translate into working leadership skills, and other skills to work independently,” Grace said. “And I think it’s great for someone that doesn’t know what they want to go straight into work or if they want to go to grad school.”

Brian Kenneally ’21 is interested in remediation, which aims to remove toxins from the environment, and was able to get hands-on experience in research at Manhattan College.

“Because I was an environmental engineering student getting my master’s, the project we were working on was related to remediation, which is what I was looking to do,” Kenneally said. “We were helping predict the terminal penetration depth of projectiles and soil like munitions, so formerly used defense sites for the Department of Defense.”

Kenneally encourages students to reach out to their Manhattan College professors and get involved with research projects on campus.

“Talk to your professors about what they’re doing and ask if they need any help. They’re all looking for bright students that can help them out because there’s a lot of work going around to do,” Kenneally said.

Rachel White ‘20, a graduate civil engineering student, also received a Bachelor’s in Science in civil engineering. Her role on the project involves creating numerical models and simulations that can account for different properties of projectile penetration in soils.

“I always thought I was just going to graduate and get a job. I never really expected myself to do research, any time in college, but I think it’s been a great opportunity to learn a different side of the academic world that not a lot of people get to see,” White said.

She also shared advice for other students who may be undecided about pursuing research and the benefits that are associated with it.

“Research allows you to learn a lot of stuff that you wouldn’t typically learn in undergrad. We’ll have weekly meetings where you will have to give an update of what your work was,” White said. “Through those I’ve learned how to defend my work and also present clearly and concisely.”

Both students and professors are grateful for the technical and professional skills they have learned that can be applied both in the classroom and beyond.

“It is deeply fulfilling to work on a research project that will have meaningful and impactful results for the entire nation,” Omidvar wrote.

The team of student researchers have the potential to contribute to solving complex problems that will benefit the nation in the long run.

“We have built a strong team at Manhattan College, and have been able to produce unprecedented data and analytical models for solving a very complex problem with important national security implications,” Omidvar wrote. “We are very fortunate to be able to put our knowledge of physics and mathematics to work on such an interesting and important problem.”