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Outstanding Alumna: Sharon Habibi

Sharon Habibi (BSSharon Habibi/Arch ’75, MS/CEE ’77, EMBA ’89, University of Tennessee; Executive MBA ’89, Georgia State University) made the journey from the suburbs of Tehran, Iran, to a successful career as an entrepreneur and business owner in Atlanta, Georgia, with the help of a special mentor and an engineering degree from the University of Tennessee.

Habibi, born Shirin Sirang Habibi in Tehran, was the daughter of a nuclear physicist, Mozaffair Sirang. Mr. Sirang received a grant to study in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and the family moved to Tennessee in 1960. Habibi completed 5th and 6th grade in Oak Ridge before the family moved back to Iran.

In 1970, Habibi returned to Tennessee and decided to major in architecture at UT–her father had consulted with some of his Oak Ridge friends and they had recommended the university for her studies.

“I was always good in math and numbers and in those days in Iran if you were not a doctor, architect, or an engineer you were nobody,” Habibi said. “My family insisted that I become a physician, but my grades in biology convinced me that I needed to follow a different path. Architecture was a great alternative but I still had an analytical side and a passion in me for the engineering.

After graduation I decided that structural engineering was a great add-on to the architecture degree that I had received.” Habibi decided to work towards a master’s degree in civil engineering.

During the process of research about the department, she met with CEE professor Dr. Ed Burdette and it was his encouragement and his confidence in Habibi that convinced her that she was on the right path.

After Habibi received her master’s degree, she accepted a position with Datum Engineers in Dallas, Texas. At that company, she became more engaged in computer programming and developing

applications for engineering calculations.


In 1980, during the advent of personal computing, Habibi and her husband decided to start their own business. Since the couple had an eight-month old daughter, they decided to move to Atlanta where her parents were located so she could have childcare while continuing her career.


“In 1980 I moved to Atlanta and started up a small software company, Syscom Technologies, Inc., marketing to engineers, which soon took off to become an information technology hardware

and software company serving Atlanta’s growing business sector,” Habibi said. “The IT industry was growing by leaps and bounds and being part of it was fun, engaging, and filled with challenges.”

While facing the daily tasks of running a business, Habibi decided to go back to school for a business degree, and she received her executive MBA from Georgia State University in 1989.

After thirty-five successful years, Habibi sold her business in 2015. “I’m not ready for retirement yet, and I’m still searching for that second career everyone talks about,” Habibi commented.

Habibi is a strong supporter of higher education, and credits her degrees from UT as being integral to her career success. “You can get a good education in many schools, but it’s the personal attention that you get, the confidence that you build, and the clear vision that you develop that makes the difference,” Habibi said. “I think I was very lucky to get that at UT. My advisor and mentor Dr. Burdette was a major influence on me and I believe that engineering students at UT still have that same experience.”

Habibi has two grown daughters, Parisa and Azita. One daughter works in Spain for Amazon Corporation and the other is in San Francisco with Braintree. Habibi enjoys working out and playing tennis, and spending time with her grandson who lives with his mother in Spain.

“I owe what I have today to the mentors that I have had along the way, most especially my father and Dr. Burdette,” Habibi added.

UT Research Reveals Certain Pollutants Worse Than Thought

Joshua FuKNOXVILLE—Nitrous oxide pollution typically conjures up images of acid rain or a smokestack belching out industrial byproduct.

While that might be the poster child for such pollution, the reality is that manufacturing sources produce only about 10 percent of the nitrogren-based pollution.

The real culprit is something much more down to earth—literally.

Agricultural sources contribute the vast majority of this type of pollution through their use of nitrates, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Professor Joshua Fu along with graduate student Jian Sun and research assistant professor Kan Huang, all of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

“Air pollution is a growing concern around the world, and one that everyone is forced to pay attention to because, by nature, airborne pollutants don’t obey borders,” said Fu, who is a joint faculty member at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “While overall nitrous oxide pollution has been reduced in the United States, nitrate pollution is really growing by leaps and bounds.

“It is unregulated, is widely used as a fertilizing product and has a real impact on the environment.”

Ammonia is the troublesome compound.

Used as both a fertilizer and occurring as a result of animal byproducts, ammonia could account for more than half of the nitrogen-based pollution in some areas of the U.S., Fu and his fellow researchers have determined.

By simulating the conditions under which such nitrogen-based pollution is found, as well as its distribution once it becomes airborne, the group hopes to bring new attention to the scope of the problem.

“As the population grows, so does the demand for food,” said Fu. “As more agricultural business takes place to meet that demand, the amount of pollution from nitrogen- and nitrate-based fertilizers climbs as well.

“We have to be able to better understand the effects of this type of pollution and to come up with alternative methods that help control it without hurting food production.”

In addition to ammonia, Fu and his fellow researchers think that organic nitrates and other oxidized nitrogen compounds should be counted as contributing to nitrogen-based pollution.

To curb pollution without impacting food supplies, Fu and his colleagues are using the powerful Titan computer at ORNL to help model more accurate outcomes.

Fu’s team looked at both “dry deposits” and “wet deposits” of nitrates. While wet deposits tend to be more localized, dry deposits have a much easier time disseminating through the air, spreading their impact far beyond what was previously known.

Working together with the National Atmospheric Deposition Program, the team will now use the data to better understand these issues and come up with solutions.

ITE Student Chapter Awards

UTK ITE chapter members with advisorSeven members of the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) Student Chapter at the University of Tennessee participated in the Tennessee Section ITE summer meeting in Gatlinburg,Tennessee, from July 13 to July 15.

At the meeting, two CEE student members presented their papers for being awarded the second and third place best student paper competition. The first place was awarded to one of our members who could not attend the meeting.

Student paper award winners (2)First Place Student Paper Competition: $500 award

Recipient: Ziwen Ling

Paper Title: How to Prevent Railroad Crossings from Becoming a Hazard to Bicyclists

Second Place Student Paper Competition: $250 award

Recipient: Behram Wali

Paper Title: Heterogeneity Assessment of Incident Durations: A Comparison of Random Parameter and Quantile Regression

Third Place Student Paper Competition: $100 award

Recipient: Kwaku Boakye

Paper Title: The Impacts of Click-It-Or-Ticket Campaign and Saturation Patrol Intervention on Nighttime Seatbelt Usage.

Scholarship recipientsThe Tennessee Section of the Institute of Transportation Engineers (TSITE) sponsors a student scholarship program each year for civil engineering students enrolled at a university within the State of Tennessee who have demonstrated a strong commitment in transportation engineering. This year, three CEE students were also selected to receive several TSITE scholarships.

Alexandra Boggs received the $2,000 John R. Harper Memorial Scholarship

Bumjoon Bae received the $1,200 William L. (Bill) Moore, Jr. Scholarship

Behram Wali received the $1,200 T. Darcy Sullivan Scholarship

Additionally, the ITE Student Chapter was awarded the best TSITE student chapter for the 2015-2016 academic year.

CEE Engages in STEM Outreach

Kimberly_CarterCEE Assistant Professor Dr. Kimberly Carter was one of several UT volunteers who participated in STEM Quest, a free summer day camp for rising seventh to ninth grade students enrolled in Lenoir City and Loudon County Schools. Carter and the other volunteers helped students create a water filter to clean dirty water and then measure the water quality. This was the first year UT was involved in the camp. Read more here.

Retiring Burdette Looks Back on His 50-Plus Years at UT

Edwin_BurdetteGermany and Austria were still occupied by Allied forces, Hawaii and Alaska weren’t yet states, and chimpanzees—let alone humans—had not gotten anywhere near space exploration.

That was the situation around the world when Edwin “Ed” Burdette came to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville as an undergraduate in the mid-1950s.

Aside from a brief period spent earning his doctorate at the University of Illinois and one and a half years working in Memphis, he’s been in UT’s civil engineering department ever since, having seen a number of changes in his given area of expertise as well as the university and the world around him.

Although he still maintains a presence and an office on campus, Burdette “retired” at the end of June and that transition has given him the opportunity to reflect on his experiences, memories and what he hopes his legacy will be across six decades at UT.

“I grew up five miles from Martin, Tennessee, on a farm where we had no money, no running water, no phone, no car,” said Burdette. “I started out riding with friends to UT-Martin, but Knoxville was the next step. We called it ‘Big UT’ back then because Martin started out as a two-year school.”

Burdette said that UT cost about $335 per quarter at the time, far beyond his means.

In order to pay for school, he said he’d borrow the money to attend a quarter, work for six months to pay it back, and then repeat the process.

While he would eventually come to be known as an icon in the structural engineering realm, Burdette began his studies more interested in agriculture.

It was while taking a structural engineering elective that he found his newfound love, and the rest was history.

Speaking of love, Burdette found that at UT as well. He met his wife, Patsy Hill, during his graduate studies and they’ve now been married nearly six decades.

As a sign of how different the academic community was at the time, Burdette was actually given tenure at UT twice: First when he earned his master’s degree and again when he returned to campus with his doctorate.

“I feel sorry for how hard the process is for people to go through now,” said Burdette. “They have to put in so much work, so many years, so much pressure. I came at just the right time.”

When he left to get his doctorate there was no professor in the department to hold one. When he came back, there were at least three. By comparison, there are more than twenty faculty in the department with doctorates today.

One special memory of his time at UT stands out.

The Elk River in Middle Tennessee was in the process of being dammed, and the Tennessee Department of Transportation and federal authorities asked him to conduct structural tests on bridges that would be submerged.

For a structural engineer, the opportunity was a pot of gold.

“They had four bridges that they funded us to do full-scale testing on,” said Burdette. “We had to work our tails off, but we got to test each of those bridges to the point of structural failure.

“That clearly is my favorite project.”

Burdette has had many projects and many students over the years, and is able to recall aspects about many of them, a theme that resonated at his retirement ceremony.

When what he considers his legacy, Burdette points to his students.

He paraphrases a quote from the gravestone of a former Illinois chancellor, itself taken from Christopher Wren’s memorial in London: “If you would see his monument, look about you”

“I asked all the students I’ve had over the years who attended my ceremony to stand up,” said Burdette. “Then I said, ‘If you would see my monument, look about you.’ “

CEE Graduate Student Jian Sun Wins Best Student Paper at 109th Annual Conference and Exhibition of the Air & Waste Management Association

headshotJian Sun, a graduate research assistant to Professor Joshua Fu, won best student paper at the 109th Annual Conference and Exhibition of the Air & Waste Management Association (AWMA) in New Orleans on June 20-23, 2016.

Sun’s paper entitled “Climate-driven exceedance of combined nitrogen and sulfur depositions at forested areas over continental U.S.,” studies nitrogen and sulfur in forest soil to determine critical load. While emissions of nitrogen and sulfur have decreased, revisiting its impact in forested areas is crucial. Sun’s research assesses future exceedances in a changing climate using a multi-model mean from global climate-chemistry models.

“I feel grateful to receive this award,” he said. “I’m strongly encouraged by the senior researchers in the air quality areas and I’ll keep on dedicating myself into the future research.”

Professor John Schwartz Explains Results of Five-Year Sustainable Bioenergy Study in Auburn Speaks

John_SchwartzCEE Professor John Schwartz has published an article in Auburn Speaks about the outcome of five-year, $15M grant with the USDA Agricultural and Food Research initiative program, with a focused research call on sustainable bioenergy for the nation.

The lead group was UTIA’s Center for Renewable Carbon with Dr. Tim Rials as the Center Director and Project Principal Investigator.  The successful grant was a team, consisting of UTK, Auburn University and North Carolina State University. Oak Ridge National Laboratory planned a support role from the Center for Bioenergy Sustainability under the leadership of Dr. Virginia Dale.

This research directly correlated with research at ORNL, where the field data collected helped calibrate ORNL’s model, the Biomass Location for Optimal Sustainability Model (BLOSM). Schwartz and his students worked with Dr. Virginia Dales’ research group to monitor three streams near Vonore, Tennessee, for several years to collect watershed-scale samples analyzed for sediment and nutrient water quality.

The team monitored runoff water quantity and quality from three switchgrass field plots for over a year on the Thompson Farm, also near Vonore, Tennessee. Results of the water quantity/quality analyses were used to calibrate the SWAT and BLSOM models. The full article is available here:

Appalachia Project Receives National Exemplary Designation from APLU

Red-Bird-full-kiosk-bw-300x225UT has been recognized nationally for a project designed to improve the wellness and disaster readiness of an Appalachian community in Clay County, Kentucky.

UT was one of only five schools to receive the C. Peter Magrath/W. K. Kellogg Exemplary Program designation this year. Sponsored by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation and presented jointly by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and the Engagement Scholarship Association, the exemplary designation recognizes universities’ extraordinary community outreach initiatives. The award region includes universities in the United States, Mexico, US territories, and several countries in Africa.

UT’s three-year project helped bring clean drinking water, home safety and sanitation, and emergency preparedness to Clay County, Kentucky. The county ranks near the bottom for the state’s major health indicators, including obesity, infant mortality, and disability. In rural areas, clean water is hard to come by, flooding is common, and mold is ubiquitous.

Provost Susan Martin said it is an honor for UT to be recognized for efforts to become even more engaged with its communities.

“We have worked diligently to foster collaboration among our academic departments to provide students with opportunities to learn through service and gain hands-on real-world experience,” she said. “I congratulate the faculty and students involved in this project for the difference they have helped make in so many people’s lives.”

In 2013, UT won a three-year $1.5 million grant from the US Department of Health and Human Services Health Resources and Services Administration to fund the initiative. The Appalachia Community Health and Disaster Readiness Project involved faculty and students from the College of Nursing, the College of Architecture and Design, the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and the Law Enforcement Innovation Center. UT partnered with Clay County’s Red Bird Mission, Clay County Emergency Management Services, local clergy, elected officials, teachers, and law enforcement personnel.

Project outcomes include the construction of a replicable water kiosk to provide clean drinking water to thousands of families. Community-based emergency management personnel and local residents also have completed multiple disaster life support courses. The UT team identified home safety and health hazards and have begun to help the community address them through replicable low-cost solutions for repairs, replacement, and mold remediation.

“This project exemplifies how nurses can partner with diverse professions and the community to promote health and wellness,” said Victoria Niederhauser, dean of the College of Nursing. “We are very proud of the work of everyone involved—the 150 students, the faculty, the community partners, and other professionals.”

John Schwartz, associate professor of civil engineering and a project leader, noted that the exemplary designation illustrates how faculty and student engagement can be accomplished among academic disciplines that traditionally have not collaborated to any great extent.

“Over a three-year period, civil engineering seniors and students from the other disciplines completed capstone design projects, including a design of a large dam and reservoir, the water kiosk, and a sanitary sewer and treatment system for Clay County,” he said. “The projects provided a great opportunity for students to work with other university students on challenging real-world problems in our country.”

John McRae, a professor of architecture and a project leader, said that when UT architecture students began designing the water kiosk, they knew this was something important and life-changing for the families in Clay County.

“Then when they put hammer to nail, they saw that their work was transforming not just the community in Kentucky but also the community of collaborators at UT,” he said.

Along with UT, four other institutions received the exemplary designation: Cornell University, University of Missouri Extension, New Mexico State University, and the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

The UT Appalachia Project team includes Lisa Davenport and Meghan Hayes from the College of Nursing; John McRae, Michelle Mokry, and David Matthews from the College of Architecture and Design; John Schwartz and Jenny Retherford from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering; and Don Green and Emily Miller from the Law Enforcement Innovation Center. Gary Skolits and Stephanie Robinson from the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences conducted project evaluations.

Community partners are Tracy Nolan of Red Bird Mission and David Watson, Clay County emergency management director.

Students Test Bioretention Media at 16th Annual Meeting of the American Ecological Engineering Society

005On June 7-9, UT hosted the 16th Annual Meeting of the American Ecological Engineering Society (AEES). This year’s conference was entitled “Rooftop to Rivers: Integrating Built and Natural Ecosystems.” Attendees included 170 students from 27 states, along with UT students from the Departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Biosystems Engineering, who came to learn about topics relating to watershed planning, stream restoration, sustainable food systems, and more. The conference hosted a suite of technical field trips, a student design competition and an assortment of networking activities to complement the technical sessions.

One such activity was a competition to design an optimal bioretention media for use in green infrastructure practices targeting nutrient removal and fine sediment from a synthetic urban stormwater. Teams were given a 4-ft. pipe column and their choice of various bioretention materials, such as gravel, sand and shredded hardwood mulch. T009he competition was judged on a combination of creativity, articulation of technical elements of their design, product cost, infiltration rate, and nutrient sediment removal.

The overall aim of AEES is to create a synergy between reflecting on society’s past and looking ahead to the challenges that lie ahead, while engaging members to continue to evolve with the emerging field of Ecological Engineering. The conference is co-chaired by Timothy Gangaware, Assistant Director of the Tennessee Water Resources Research Center, Andrea Ludwig, Assistant Professor of Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science and John Schwartz, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

CEE PhD Student wins First Place in Engineering Mechanics Institute Granular Materials Technical Committee Student Competition

Druckrey_headshot2Andrew Druckrey, a PhD civil engineering student, recently won the first place in the granular materials technical committee student competition during the 2016 National ASCE: Engineering Mechanics Institute (EMI) conferenc
e that was hosted by Vanderbilt University, May 22-25, 2016. The competition was judged by a panel of EMI granular materials technical committee members based on the clarity, quality and technical content of the poster, and on a five-minute presentation. Andrew submitted an application and poster entitled “3D Experimental Investigation of Local Shearing and Fabric Evolution During Triaxial Compression of Granular Materials,” and was awarded first place in the competition that was recognized during the conference banquet and included a monetary prize. Andrew works under the supervision of Professor Khalid Alshibli on a grant funded by the Office of Naval Research Laboratory.

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