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Women’s History Month: A Conversation With Dr. Abbie Liel


Abbie Liel is a professor of Civil, Environmental, and Architectural Engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her work focuses on finding new ways to design and assess structures to withstand extreme conditions, to make structures safer and more sustainable.

Abbie is involved with the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), contributing to the development of ASCE 7, a widely used set of building requirements and standards that protect the safety and welfare of the public. She serves as chair of the subcommittee tasked with making climate-change-related recommendations for all ASCE 7’s hazards, and she is a member of several other committees that manage engineering codes and criteria.

Abbie is funded by the Climate Program Office’s Modeling, Analysis, Predictions, and Projections (MAPP) Program to contribute to a new research project focused on the impact of extreme snow loads and rain on snow events on building design amid climate change. Building collapses due to heavy snow pose a significant danger in certain regions like mountainous areas of the United States. One situation that can create a risk is when snow is followed by rain, causing a surge in the snowpack weight. Abbie and a team of researchers will evaluate how these risks will evolve in a changing climate and provide climate-informed design recommendations for ASCE 7. This project works toward a MAPP initiative to improve climate projections that will help communities, businesses, and industries better plan for the future. Abbie will serve as co-lead for the NOAA Projections Task Force to enhance engagement across the climate projections teams.

Our conversation follows: 

When you were younger, did you ever picture yourself being a scientist or an engineer? And what set you on the course to your career?

As a kid, I liked math and science and was relatively good at them. When I went to college, I wasn’t sure how I would pursue that interest and what that would look like. At Princeton, while exploring engineering, I discovered that I’m a very people-oriented person, so I needed to find a field of engineering where I could see the impact on people. I also like to be able to see structures like buildings and bridges. That’s how I ended up in civil and structural engineering. I had an amazing college experience. I had great mentorship from several people. One person, in particular, had great courses and inspired me to believe in the ability of engineers and structural engineers to remake the face of the world around us. He encouraged me to do research and helped me explore what it was like to be a researcher. That kept me on the path. 

At this point in your career, some of your projects have a link to climate change issues. Has that always been the case, or have you grown your interest in climate science?

I did my Ph.D. in earthquake engineering. I’ve always been interested in the things that can happen to our structures and communities and the ways in which we could design, build, retrofit, and repair differently to reduce those impacts. That gave me a lot of experience in engineering and policymaking, probability and statistics, and risk calculations. I’ve been a professor and faculty member here at the University of Colorado, Boulder for sixteen years, and I’ve explored other hazards like snow loads and hurricane risk, translating those skills that I developed in the earthquake engineering space. At the same time, I was drawn to climate work because I grew up in the Pacific Northwest,  where I spent a lot of time outside camping and hiking. The world around us and people in connection with the natural world are super important to me. I’ve always been motivated by doing engineering to help protect our communities and our world. The link to climate is based on my skill set, experience, and also my personal motivations.

Your recent article on environmental hazards and incarceration facilities touches on some environmental justice issues. How does your work intersect with environmental justice and how can the field provide solutions for issues in environmental justice?

This work is about increasing awareness that engineering and science are not divorced from environmental justice issues. How we design and build and how we make explicit and implicit decisions has differential impacts on different people. There’s quite a bit of awareness about environmental justice around land use planning broadly, but there are also issues around how we build and maintain facilities. The benefits and burdens of those decisions are not equally distributed. 

In the incarceration work that we did, we looked at Colorado facilities, including prisons, jails, and immigrant detention facilities, and their risks from hazards, many or all of which could increase due to climate change. We found that some hazards, like flooding, impact incarceration facilities more than other facilities. Part of that is just that they’re more likely to be built in flood-prone places. But also, incarceration facilities, compared to facilities like schools, are more likely to be in places where we don’t have data and we don’t have flood hazard maps. The lack of information is another form of injustice, especially in incarceration. The whole system is set up to isolate incarcerated people and also isolate our abilities as scientists and researchers to really understand the problem. 

We’ve also done quite a bit of interview work with formerly incarcerated people in Colorado. They identify severe, inhumane practices or issues in our prison system that are related to infrastructure and engineering like a lack of air conditioning, malfunctioning air conditioning, lack of clean water, or other temperature and air quality issues that are pretty egregious. The nature of incarceration gives people a very limited ability to protect themselves and they have very little agency. The human vulnerability and the physical vulnerability of facilities on top of the hazard create a huge environmental injustice.

You have very enthusiastic students in your research group. What is your philosophy on mentorship, and how do you approach the challenges that come along with it?

My philosophy is driven by my own experience with my mentors, and how valuable and supportive they have been to me. I want to provide that to others. Mentorship varies a lot by each student and what they’re looking for. I believe in both being supportive and pushing people. I encourage my students in the classroom and in my research group to stretch themselves. Any engineer can answer the question: what is the strength of this beam? It’s harder to answer: why does it matter for climate change, or engineering, or for the design, the cost, and embodied carbon? I like to try to get students to explain those answers. 

In engineering education worldwide, we teach initially that there are a lot of right answers. This is true, and there are certainly wrong answers, but the value of human engineers is the interpretation, so I try to focus on that. Another comment on mentorship is that structural engineering is still a very male-dominated field. This is changing, but not as quickly as I would like. Many of these men are amazing and have been great mentors to me. Nevertheless, I take a special interest and focus in mentoring women, in terms of navigating gender dynamics in groups and recognizing that they’re going into a workforce that is likely to be very gender-imbalanced. That produces different challenges for women than in a work field that is more balanced.

In your career, have you faced any particularly hard challenges? How have you been able to adapt?

I have experienced challenges where I felt like I had been treated and evaluated differently because of my gender. That’s all I’ll say about that, except that it’s real, dramatic, and hard to deal with. I’ve reflected on those experiences, in the sense that I’m fortunate to be a tenured, full professor and I’m relatively protected at this point in my career. I’ve been trying to speak out when I think that something is not the way it should be. I’ve been advocating for myself, which I think is important, but it’s more important for me to advocate for others who are in or might find themselves in a similar situation. 

I’ve also reflected on why it is a problem that we don’t have more women structural engineers. It’s not just a problem because I don’t want to be treated in a certain way, but it’s a problem because engineers make so many decisions about building codes, housing standards, and more. If those decisions are being made by a subset of the population–and it doesn’t matter what subset–we’re putting ourselves at a disadvantage. We need more perspectives at that table. That thinking led me to write a National Science Foundation grant proposal about understanding women’s perspectives on engineering and housing. It also led me to join various codes and standards committees.

Being a working mother–even with a very supportive partner–presents a set of challenges. My decision to chair the ASCE subcommittee about climate change was partially driven by a feeling that when I look back on my career, I want to be doing things that are making things better for my kid. For everybody’s kid. That has pushed some of my decisions to the forefront.

Throughout your career, has your definition of success changed?

Success for myself has certainly changed. Initially, I was working towards getting a job and working towards tenure. Now I have the ability to uplift others. I want my students to take the lead and have ownership, and I make sure they get the credit.

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