December Spotlight for Meet the PEER Students - Presented by the PEER Student Committee

December 1, 2021

The PEER Student Committee is pleased to present our next spotlighted researcher in the "Meet the PEER Students'' Series. The series features students and postdoctoral researchers who conduct exciting research projects, engage in leadership activities, and perform exceptional work. This month, we met James Gordon, a graduate student at Oregon State University.

James Gordon is a graduate student at Oregon State University pursuing an M.S. in Structural Engineering. His research focuses on simulating the behavior of steel-frame structures exposed to fire. He is working on developing modeling techniques in OpenSees and benchmarking those techniques against experimental tests performed at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Because OpenSees is already popular amongst the Earthquake Engineering community, developing fire modeling capabilities in OpenSees will lower the barrier for engineers to analyze structures more easily for post-earthquake fire or fire only scenarios. Before studying at Oregon State University, James attended Oklahoma State University where he was involved with research focusing on the behavior of slip-critical steel connections. This involvement with undergraduate research along with participation in various clubs and internship experience spurred his interest in Earthquake and Natural Hazard Engineering. Outside of Structural Engineering, James enjoys hiking, fishing, playing sports and spending time with friends.

What made you interested in earthquake engineering?

What sparked my interest initially was that I felt an earthquake in Oklahoma a couple years ago, and I got really nervous that my apartment building was going to fall down. So when we started studying those topics in class, I paid extra attention to them. Eventually, in my senior year of undergrad, I took a structural dynamics and a foundations class and I did a project on base isolation. I think that's when I really felt like this is something I wanted to continue to learn about and hopefully do as a career.

What are your research objectives?

My main research objective is to show that OpenSees can be used to simulate the behavior of structures in fire. That's important because OpenSees is open source and it takes a lot less time to run a simulation in OpenSees versus other finite element programs that are used in industry right now. Also, OpenSees is already popular in the earthquake engineering community, so we're hoping that by showing that OpenSees can do fire simulations and demonstrating how that can be done, we’ll lower the barrier for engineers to simulate post-earthquake fires and fire-only scenarios.

What are your career goals?

I want to do a little bit of everything, but I do have some broader career goals. The first is designing structures to withstand natural hazards or extreme loading events. Second, I like the challenge of learning, so I want my career to reflect that and to continually be learning throughout whatever I do. And finally, I would really like to be in a position to mentor other engineers. I'm really grateful for the people that have poured into me and helped me get to where I am now, so I would really like to one day provide that for someone else.

What are some of the most important aspects of doing fire simulations in OpenSees?

Two of the most important aspects of modeling fire in open seas would be the constitutive models and the boundary conditions you’re using. When I'm talking about constitutive models, that is defining your materials and your temperature dependent material properties. Unlike in an earthquake, where loads are changing with time, in a fire simulation your gravity loads are constant, but as the temperature changes with time, your material properties are changing, and that's going to affect the resistance of your structure. The second important thing is boundary conditions. When a steel beam heats up, it wants to expand and there's extra restraint from the structural members around it. So large axial forces are developed and transferred through the connections. While that's not as much of a problem with the moment connections or the lateral force resisting system, it's really important for the gravity connections, which aren't designed to handle those extra loads. Additionally, with that restraint there's extra moment that develops, so an idealized pin is no longer very accurate for the gravity connection.

What activities in your research have been the most challenging?

Getting started has been the most challenging thing for me. When I started this project, I did not have a lot of experience with OpenSees or coding at that level in general. So, just building my first models and being confident in what I was doing took a little bit of time, and that was definitely a struggle at first.

Can you tell us about any achievements which you are especially proud of?

In my undergrad, I worked on a project where my group and I were trying to figure out why our client’s large oil tanks were blowing down during construction. That was my first project where I had to apply some technical knowledge from class and use some structural analysis software to figure out a practical solution for a problem.

Other fun facts about James

If you could have a superpower to boost your research, what would it be?

I think I'd have to say, the superpower of not needing sleep. I'd say that time is the biggest constraint, so having more of that to work and other things would be nice.

What has been your favorite moment in grad school so far?

Last year, when everything was shut down, I would go on hikes and when I got to my destination, I would sit down and work a little bit just to kind of relax but still be productive. One time, another grad student in my group went with me. We woke up early, hiked, watched the sunrise, and graded papers.

What hobbies do you enjoy?

Anything outdoors. I love to fish, camp, and play sports, especially tennis.

Do you have any morning or nightly routines?

Whenever I wake up, I make myself breakfast and some hot tea and I write down a list of everything I have to do that day, just to keep me on track.

Which course have you enjoyed the most in school?

I'd say that's a toss up between seismic design and advanced steel design, because I think it's really fun to think about load path in the structure, and both of those courses kind of hit that topic in similar but different ways.

Watch the previous Meet the PEER Student spotlights on the PEER Student Committee website. Do you know someone in the PEER institutions who is doing a great job? Nominate them here to be part of this series.