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Professor Amy Rechenmacher Wins NSF Early Career Award

She receives five-year award for her work in granular behavior and geotechnical engineering applications

January 30, 2008 — Amy Rechenmacher, an assistant professor in the Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, has won a highly competitive National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award for her work in granular behavior and geotechnical engineering applications.

The $400,000 award will support Rechenmacher's research over a five-year period beginning July 1, 2008.  The award, among the highest of honors for young faculty members, supports early career development for teacher-scholars whose research shows promise.  Rechenmacher is the fifth faculty member in the Sonny Astani Department to receive an NSF career award.
Amy Rechenmacher

"Amy's research addresses one of the top unanswered questions in science: how does granular material behave?" said Jean-Pierre Bardet, chair of the Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. "That question touches on some of the most fundamental science and engineering problems in this field, such as building and improving our infrastructure, improving our ability to predict earthquakes, and better understanding other seismic events. We're very excited that she's received support to advance her research in this field." 

Rechenmacher, who studies the mechanics of granular flows, won the CAREER award for her proposal, "CAREER: The Kinematics of Localized Failure and Flow in Granular Materials."  The research will address the behavior of local flows in three contexts: in shear bands, or fractures, that appear in dense sands and cause them to slip or collapse; in fault gouges, which are crushed and ground-up rock produced by friction between the two sides when a fault moves; and to help researchers understand and quantify the thermodynamics of these dense granular flows.

"Specifically, we will use experimental imaging techniques to detect and characterize micro- and meso-scale deformations that are presumed to be signatures of the buildup and collapse of grain columns," Rechenmacher said.  "These grain columns form the basic mechanism for stress transfer in granular materials."

Most previous studies of granular flow using grain systems, such as sand and corn, have been limited to two-dimensional realizations of idealized materials, due to the opacity of the sand and corn, Rechenmacher said. 

"This effort will provide a first-of-its-kind opportunity to characterize granular flow in a real material by imaging sand as it deforms along glass boundaries," she said.

Rechenmacher joined USC's Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in 2005.  Prior to USC, she had been an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD, where she taught soil mechanics and digital imaging methods at the undergraduate and graduate levels. 

She received her Ph.D. in geotechnical engineering from Northwestern University's Whiting School of Engineering in 2000 and set up a geotechnical research laboratory to continue her work in imaging techniques for soil testing.  She also worked briefly as a soil specialist on an archaeological excavation of the ancient Mut Temple ruins in Karnak, in the southern Egyptian city of Luxor.  As a soil specialist, she analyzed the terrain to determine its granular properties. 

Rechenmacher earned her master's degree in civil engineering from Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, in 1994, and her bachelor of science degree with distinction in civil engineering from Iowa State University, Ames, IA, in 1991.

She is a member of two national engineering honor societies -- Tau Beta Pi and Chi Epsilon - and several professional engineering organizations, including the American Society of Civil Engineers, the American Geophysical Union, Geo-Institute and the International Association of Foundation Drilling. 

At USC, Rechenmacher is a Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) committee member.