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A Bridge of Memories and Science

Ahmed M. Abdel-Ghaffar's legacy honored by a remarkable line-up of peers, as family looks on

September 26, 2008 — Structural engineering experts from all over the world converged on Tutor Hall to share the latest developments in the state of their art — and pay tribute to a Viterbi School pioneer for his fundamental contributions to it.
Ahmed M. Abdel-Ghaffar 1947-2008

Yortsos: "He was a man for all seasons"
A symposium on "Advances in Structural Dynamics and Earthquake Engineering"  honored the memory of Professor Ahmed M. Abdel-Ghaffar who died April 17, 2008 of complications of liver disease at the age of 60.

Viterbi School Dean Yannis C. Yortsos opened the gathering by greeting Ghaffar’s widow and his three children, two of them USC alumni (Sami, VSoE CS department; Takek, School of Architecture) and  one, Sarah, a junior in the Annenberg School.

“Ahmed was a great teacher, a fine advisor and a preeminent researcher in his areas of research. He was a man for all seasons – an engineer with an original mind and a creative spirit… and an elegant, cultured man – an artist in humanity," said Yortsos.

“He graced our lives and elevated our school.

“If you ever went to Ahmed’s office, there would be no question about his interests and research focus. The walls of his office were covered with pictures of long-span bridges constructed through out the world. His research activities emphasized the development of an understanding of the relationship of the key design decisions and the resulting performance of these structures. His tools for developing this understanding were based, in part, on his collection of critical measurements on the dynamic behavior of bridges.

“The pictures of Ahmed placing sensors at the top of the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge are certainly a testament to his
Professor Prof. Hiroki Yamaguchi of Japan's Saitama University remembered meetings with Ghaffar.
dedication, but also to his lack of fear in pursuing his goals. Ahmed’s understanding was also based on the development of complex 3-D computer models, used to simulate bridge performance and to test new design approaches. The culmination of his work was the creation of techniques to allow sensor-based health monitoring of long span bridges.

“This is the proper way to remember him – an illuminating academic symposium held by a quality department in a special school, featuring inventive thinkers from around the globe. Ahmed would have loved to be here – and to assume his usual starring role,” the dean concluded.

Jean-Pierre Bardet, chair of the Astani Department, also offered words in praise of his late colleague. ""Building tall bridges that span engineering frontiers and withstand great earthquakes was Ahmed Abdel-Ghaffar's passion. Ahmed was a gentleman engineer and a dedicated educator,"

Two Astani Department professors chaired the sessions, Mihrab Agababian in the morning, L.Carter Welford in the afternoon. The proceedings began with a presentation from President Richard Miller of Olin College of Engineering, who asked, "Are Our Universities Doing the Best Job of Producing Real Engineering Innovators?" (click on this lnk to download the program pdf)

The speakers who followed came from institutions all over the world, including seven from Japan, three from China, one from Germany, and from U.S. schools including Caltech, Stanford, U. Illinois, Columbia, U.C.L.A., U.C.S.D., Renaessaler Polytechnic, and U. Nevada Reno, as well as the U.S. Federal Highway Administration.

Many of the presenters personally knew Ghaffar, and offered their own reminiscences of him in the course of the program, which ranged from the historical ("Integrity Assessment of the Pharos of Alexandria During the AD 1303 Earthquake') to the experimental ("E‚ÄźDefense Experiment on the Seismic Performance of Bridge Columns,") to the operational ("System Identification: Don't Estimate, Update and Predict Robustly!"). 

New technology in wide use abroad but rare in the U.S. was featured, including active monitoring systems installed (at a cost of about 1 percent of total capital expenditure) on hundreds of bridges in China, including the huge Donghai bridge linking Shanghai to its offshore island main ship cargo terminal.

The closing remarks ended a remarkable day of science and reminiscence.

Click on this link for a pdf of a tribute to Ghaffar

Speakers and family: Front row, wife, Sarah Abdel-Ghaffar and daughter Sarah, third and fourth from left.  Back row, sons Samy and Takek, third and fourth from right. (photograph by  Jan MacMichael.)