June Spotlight for the Meet the PEER Students Series

June 22, 2021

The PEER Student Committee is pleased to present our first 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 Dr. Maha Kenawy, a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Maha Kenawy, PhD Postdoctoral Scholar University of Nevada, RenoDr. Maha Kenawy is a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Nevada, Reno. She specializes in advancing the nonlinear modeling methods of reinforced concrete structures, and characterizing the risks of earthquakes to civil structures. Dr. Kenawy holds a Ph.D. in Civil and Environmental Engineering from the University of California, Davis, and a M.Sc. and B.Sc. in Construction Engineering from the American University in Cairo (AUC), Egypt. She is the recipient of the ASCE O.H. Ammann Research Award in Structural Engineering, the NHERI Summer Institute Grant for early-career researchers in natural hazard risk reduction from NSF, and the Laboratory Instruction Graduate Fellowship from AUC. Dr. Kenawy has been invited to give technical talks at several U.S. institutions and conferences. She has also held leadership positions in the earthquake engineering community, including a chair of the EERI Younger Members Committee.

What made you interested in earthquake engineering?

As I began studying structural engineering, I came across research work about earthquakes, their impacts on structures, and how to model structures computationally, to know how they behave in extreme conditions. That seemed like a really complex and challenging field. I was kind of drawn to it in a “Sherlock Holmes” kind of way: “This is really exciting, I want to work on this and figure out how we can improve the ways we do these computational simulations.

What are your research objectives?

The goal of my research is to improve the preparedness of our communities for large and rare earthquakes. Think of COVID-19, for example. One might say that the field of epidemiology is pretty advanced. However, we were hit with COVID and we had significant disruptions to our lives, despite how prepared we thought we were. So my research goal is to prepare us for the COVID-19 of earthquakes, thinking about those large and rare events that may not come very often. All to improve the ways we build our infrastructure and think about the behavior of our communities to recover after disasters, so that we're prepared for such a rare event.

What methods and tools do you use for your research?

I use advanced simulation methodologies to make sure we're able to predict the performance of structures under extreme conditions, reinforced concrete structures specifically. I also use simulations of fault ruptures. I work with brilliant seismologists and geophysicists who provide these simulated earthquake ground motions which come from physics-based simulations of those ruptures. When we take these and we apply them to structural models that we hope are realistic enough, we can get an idea of what a big and rare earthquake can do to our structures. Then from that, you can do a loss analysis with them or estimate what types of economic or downtime losses to expect.

Could you tell us about your engagement in the earthquake engineering community and what drew you to it?

As a graduate student, I joined the Student Leadership Council of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI). I ended up in the Younger Members Committee, which is tasked with highlighting and increasing the impact of young professionals in the earthquake engineering community; I eventually served as a chair for that committee. Through that, I also took on organizing positions in conferences, such as EERI Annual Meetings and the National Earthquake Conference. Once you start doing professional service activities, you start to gain valuable experience in leadership and communication. Opportunities open up for you to talk about your work, to connect with others, and to get jobs. Now, I serve as the Community Director of the UNR postdoctoral association, and I’m a member of the ASCE technical committee on performance-based design of structures.

What are your career goals?

The way I think about my career may be a bit unconventional. I think I would like a career at the interface of both research and practice. I love doing research, but I felt somewhat isolated from the practice by being in academia only. At the same time, academia is where all the innovations come out, so I think I would like to have a career that is kind of in-between: working on developing new technologies to improve our buildings and other structures, and at the same time, translating and implementing those advances into the structural engineering practice.

Watch the June Spotlight video with Dr. Maha Kenawy. Do you know someone in the PEER institutions who is doing a great job? Nominate them to be part of this series.