Woman of Steel
Associate professor of civil engineering Erin Bell believes bridges should "talk"

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Q: Why structural engineering?

Erin Bell

A: I'm the third generation in steel. My grandfather was a blacksmith. He learned electric welding in a German work camp. After the war, he walked from Berlin to his hometown in Northern Italy. He and his family immigrated to the United States, and in the '70s, he started his own business. My dad had just returned from Vietnam. He wanted to go college, but the family needed him. That's what paid for my college education—Santini Brothers Ironworks in Medford, Mass.

I'm the only one of five children who is not a certified welder. I teach steel.

You can't drive in Medford with one of my relatives without hearing, "We did that rooftop unit" or "We did the structural"—you feel this ownership. I feel that way with my projects. There's a furniture store in Natick. When we're out that way, I say to my husband, "Can we just go in for a few minutes?" He says, "You know you don't own this building?" I look at the rotunda, which took me forever to design, and feel ownership.

Q: What's it like as a woman in this field?

A: When I worked as a consultant, I made a big mistake. I showed up at the job site in heels. Pulled into the parking lot, put on my boots, and they all saw me. It was a chink in the armor. My boss was with me, ready to go. And I was changing my shoes. When you get to the site you must be 110 percent prepared.

As for cat calls, once you've shown you belong, it stops. The quickest way to stop it is to give it back to them. I say, "Oh, where have you been all my life, 60 pounds overweight and smoking a cigarette. Oh, yeah, I'm definitely gonna leave my husband for you."

But I tell my students, if you feel unsafe, you tell the supervisor. Any student—male engineers, young engineers—will get heckled when they go to the job site for the first time. Fresh out of school and you're telling somebody who's been doing this for 30 years what to do. I tell students, "You be prepared. If you're confident, nobody can take that away from you." I also tell them to keep a dollar bill in their pocket. A dollar bill is 6 inches long. If you want to check a spacing and don't have a tape measure, a dollar bill will do.

Q: Bridges—are we in trouble? Are we all going to be falling into the river?

A: No. If you look at the history of what causes bridge collapses, deterioration is really low on the list. What we will see is more bridges posted with weight limits. It's not that the bridge will collapse, it's the amount of maintenance it will need once it gets posted.

We take our infrastructure for granted a little bit. If you have to pay a $3 toll, everybody cringes. We drove from Paris down to the south of France and through Italy. I bet we paid 150 euros in tolls.

Erin Bell

Q: What's a "talking bridge"?

A: Actually, the bridge right by Oyster River High School in Durham is a talking bridge. It's instrumented with sensors for strain and temperature. The bridge can tell us the environmental effects it's experiencing and what it's doing in response. I got a call from the state police bomb squad, because President Obama was going to be driving over that bridge and here are all my little sensors on the bridge.

Q: Should all bridges have sensors?

A: I do think eventually they should. Similar to the "intelligent transportation" sensors that give drivers real-time traffic updates. I've actually instrumented the Tobin Bridge in Boston. Those sensors are not operational anymore, but we did make a model. The average age of bridges in the United States is 47 or 48—they built them with a 50-year design life. But then, I just took the kids to Pont du Gard in southern France, which is over 2,000 years old. It's a Roman aqueduct. Granted, it's not used for vehicles—it's a World Heritage site. ~

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