Jiehua Shen: engineering that saves lives

Many people can trace their choice of career to a significant event in their youth.

For Jiehua Jay Shen, a new associate professor in the Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering, it was the Great Tangshan Earthquake in 1976.

The 7.8 magnitude quake that hit China is considered the most deadly of the 20th Century, with fatalities estimated as high as 650,000.

At that time, Shen’s parents worked at a hospital in Huainan, a thousand kilometers away from the epicenter. Despite the distance, the hospital still treated thousands of refugees from the disaster.

The impression it made on Shen was enormous.

“It wiped out thousands of lives, displaced thousands of families. At the hospital where my parents worked, I saw so many small orphans and elderly people with no family to care for them,” said Shen. “At the time I did not know how I was going to do it, but I was going to build buildings that would never kill people. I have never wanted to do anything else.”

The event led Shen to major in civil/structural engineering in 1977 when the Cultural Revolution in China was ending; universities, closed for a decade, began to reopen. The top math scholar in his high school, Shen was able to gain entry to Hefei University of Technology at a time when admission to college was highly competitive.

Shen then attended the Chinese Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research in Beijing to study for his master’s degree at its Department of Structural Engineering. While there, he met University of California, Berkeley Chancellor C-L Tien, who introduced him to Ray Clough, a professor of structural engineering, founder of the Earthquake Engineering Research Center at Berkeley, and a pioneer in the development and application of the finite element method to analyze the stresses on structures.

“Clough was able to gather top researchers and the best experts in earthquake engineering from all over the world,” said Shen. “I knew Berkeley was where I wanted to go.” Shen completed his Ph.D. there in 1992.

Surprisingly, he considers himself fortunate to have experienced four major earthquakes in his lifetime.

“I was lucky that I was able to see and then learn from them, each at a different time, and at a particularly decisive time in my career,” Shen said. “Ever since the beginning of my career until now, everything I have done from selecting research topics to educating students has been related to those four events.

That included the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake in San Francisco, Calif., during his doctoral studies at Berkeley.

“It was then that I began to get a glimpse of what 21st century seismic engineering would look like. It was clear that traditional engineering methods would not work,” said Shen. “At the same time, computational abilities were beginning to take off, and I began looking at model-based and performance-based engineering as a better way to address seismic design problems.”

Shen also was at hand for the 1994 Northridge Earthquake in Los Angeles, Calif., and most recently traveled to China as part of an investigation team in the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, which claimed 69,000 lives.

Shen comes to Iowa State University from 20 years at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he educated a generation of structural engineers “from scratch,” he said, in response to growing demand for engineers trained in seismic design.

“This is where I feel my work is most necessary, not only in the research, but in the education of future structural engineers. That education is where future lives will be saved.”