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Viterbi School Solves "Two-Body" Problem And Recruits a Hopkins Couple

Amy Rechenmacher and Roger Ghanem Say Flexibility and Understanding a Major Draw

January 04, 2006 —
Newly wed, new homeowners, professionally secure at one of the nation's best research universities, engineers Amy Rechenmacher and Roger Ghanem had no plans to leave Johns Hopkins in 2002.  Nevertheless, the couple is now happily part of the USC Viterbi School — she in the department of Civil and Environmental Engineering; he in Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering.
Rechenmacher and Ghanem: "The two-body problem is here to stay,and universities that demonstrate that they can deal with it creatively and effectively will have an edge."
Such a coordinated move by married professors is whimsically known in academic administration circles as "the two body problem," and is notorious for its complexity. The Viterbi School's sucessful solution of this case is a bright candle in the school's 100th birthday cake.

The couple recounted the history on a warm afternoon in the Tutor Hall plaza, over coffee. The initial suggestion to look at the Viterbi School came from civil engineer Sami Masri, who like Roger, is of Lebanese extraction, leading to a USC visit in March, 2004.

The first plus was then-dean Max Nikias. "His energy and commitment were overwhelming in the first meeting," Rechenmacher recalls, and, even more important, the first meeting was just the first in a series. "We met with him many times."

And while Nikias was impressive, the reality on campus was equally impressive, the pair explained. "We looked around and saw funding, administrative commitment. When you think Hopkins, you think medicine. But here, we saw a school on the up gradient, with resources they were willing to commit," continued Rechenmacher. And they both noticed the Viterbi School emphasis on interdisciplinary research, which struck a resonant chord.

Hopkins, Rechenmacher explained, is a good school, but a small one.  "I had a small lab at Hopkins,"  she said.. "But, USC did not grumble in the least when I specified a minimum square footage for my new lab -- twice the size of my old lab at Hopkins.  Second, my current research predominantly focuses on the study of the mechanics of granular materials, with emphases on soil mechanics and geotechnical engineering applications.  

"I had also extended this work to the study of friction in earthquake faulting; however, there were no structural geologists on the faculty at Hopkins with whom I could collaborate, partly due to Hopkins' small size.  Thus, I ended up seeking a collaboration with some structural geologists at Stanford.  USC, on the other hand, hosts the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC), and has several well-known structural geologists on the faculty, who I look forward to working with.

Bottom line:. "At Hopkins, to find people to work with, I would have to fly across the country. Here, I could just walk across campus."

Ghanem, more academically senior than his wife, faced another set of problems.  He had a large set of grad students, embedded in a large set of problems spread across several laboratories and disciplines. With cooperation from the Viterbi School, most have now made the journey.

Real estate was another issue. The couple had just bought a house in Baltimore, which is not as superheated a real estate market as Southern California.  But the timing worked in their favor. They were able to sell their Maryland house at a profit, and buy a house in Silverlake (a neighborhood they both like very much), which has already appreciated considerably.

The weather is a big plus. Rechenmacher, a Chicago native who worked in Orange County early in her career, is extremely happy to be back where she can swim outdoors through the winter.

Another major draw was USC's Women in Science and Engineering program. "That WISE is backed by an endowed gift means that USC's effort of increasing the number of women faculty in Science and Engineering disciplines is not just lip service," she says. "USC is almost unique in this regard. I was very impressed by this. I am currently serving on the VSoE WiSE organizational committee, and am happy and proud to be doing this service."

Roger has received a major new grant, aimed at improving the resolution and reliability of sonar imaging, researching for the Navy a probabilistic method for dealing with the way ocean water changes its sonar wave carrying capability as waves traverse from warmer to colder water, or water that is very salty to less salty water.

This is on top of other longstanding work, such as an intriguing general study he is undertaking for Sandia, to determine how much faith can be placed on predictive models in the absence of significant experimental backup; or, alternatively, how much experimental backup is needed to validate predictive models. (Experimentation is expensive, but necessary - if just enough and no more is undertaken, money can be saved without sacrificing reliability.)

Another recent project to which this specialty is being applied aims at reconstructing an image of the ground subsurface to be used in optimizing drilling operations for oil and gas production.  This reconstruction will utilize data collected during normal drilling operations.  This work is being carried out in collaboration with Saudi-ARAMCO.

Both are very glad to be here, and Rechenmacher particularly says that the flexibility and understanding they found at the Viterbi School is a major strength.  "The two-body problem is here to stay," says Amy, "and universities that demonstrate that they can deal with it creatively and effectively will have an edge."
For another perspective on the two-body problem and WISE, Click Here