2010: Moments that Shaped the Cockrell School

This special video feature is dedicated to capturing the moments that defined education, engineering and innovation at the Cockrell School in 2010.

Dean Gregory Fenves

A message from Dean Gregory L. Fenves

With the new year underway I want to reflect on what the Cockrell School of Engineering accomplished in 2010 and some of the challenges ahead. The accompanying video presents a sample of the amazing work by our students and faculty over the past year. I am proud of their achievements and am grateful to our alumni and friends for your support of the Cockrell School. Continue reading ...

Responding to global needs

 Cracked roads in Chile

An 8.8 magnitude earthquake rocked Chile. Click image to enlarge.


On Jan. 12. 2010 at 4:53 p.m. local time, a magnitude 7 earthquake shuddered Haiti, killing, injuring and displacing more than 1 million people and ripping away the very underpinning of the Caribbean nation's infrastructure, government and way of life. Among the outpour of help and support that came from around the world were professors and graduate students from the Cockrell School of Engineering who used their expertise to help assess the safety of essential infrastructure — hospitals, government buildings, telecommunication centers — as well as document the location and extent of the quake’s damage in its immediate aftermath. Led by civil engineering professors Ellen Rathje and Wassim Ghannoum, their contributions are helping to guide reconstruction, educate Haitians on construction improvements and, ultimately, build a stronger, more resilient Haiti.

In Chile

Just one month after Haiti, an 8.8 magnitude earthquake rocked Chile. Electrical Engineering Assistant Professor Alexis Kwasinski made two trips to the South American country to take inventory of the damage on power and telecommunications infrastructure, as well as other factors that are essential to everyday normal operations. Kwasinski said that what was learned from the Chile earthquake can be used to make improvements along the West Coast in the event of a subduction zone quake. His experience in Chile is documented in an audio slideshow.

Close to home

The long-term effects of BP's Deepwater Horizon oil spill on April 20, 2010 are still unclear, but the Cockrell School of Engineering was called upon in multiple ways to assess the impact, find best strategies for cleanup, understand what went wrong and make federal policy suggestions on ways to prevent another oil spill disaster.

Among those leading the response from the Cockrell School were Tad Patzek, chair of the Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering Department, and faculty member Paul Bommer. Bommer was selected by the National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council to serve on a national committee analyzing the cause of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill. And, in addition to answering a barrage of media requests about the spill from around the world, Patzek briefed Congress on what he called a tragedy "at least 20 years in the making."

During the same period, aerospace engineering Professor Clint Dawson from the Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences used the Ranger supercomputer at the Texas Advanced Computing Center to produce 3-D simulations of the impact of the spill on Gulf of Mexico coastal areas. The simulations were used to help scientists determine how the oil may spread in environmentally sensitive areas.

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Finding energy solutions and shaping policy

Wind turbines and oil rig in open field

Traditional and renewable energy resources spread Texas' landscape. Photo by Mary Christenberry Lott. Click image to enlarge.

The Cockrell School has long been at the forefront when it comes to finding energy solutions and helping shape responsible public policy; its role in 2010 was no different. Faculty like chemical engineering Professor Gary Rochelle developed improved methods for carbon sequestration — a key factor in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions — thanks to funding support from private power generation company, Luminant.

Another private-public partnership in 2010, this time between the Cockrell School and Chevron, will allow for the continuation of an exciting three-year research alliance that partners students and faculty with technology leaders of enhanced oil recovery. The partnership pays for students and faculty to explore engineering and technology solutions that advance the field.

And just miles from The University of Texas at Austin campus, Cockrell School faculty are lending their expertise to develop a renewable energy-based smart grid system known as the Pecan Street Project that could reinvent the way communities across the U.S. generate, distribute, store and consume energy. Funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and National Science Foundation, the research initiative partners the Cockrell School with the City of Austin, the Austin Energy utility company and high-tech companies — all of which are looking to our faculty to help solve the most complex obstacles around building an integrated smart grid system.

Of course, not all of our energy solutions are so complex. As mechanical engineering Assistant Professor Michael Webber found in his July 2010 study, the U.S. could save roughly 2 percent of its total energy consumption in one year if it stopped wasting food.

"That's about twice as much energy as Switzerland consumes in a year for all purposes, so we could power them up and then some," Webber said.

Simply put, Webber said, eat your leftovers. He spoke about these findings, along with other energy solutions, when he was invited to speak at the World Energy Forum Sept. 17, 2010.

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Charting new frontiers

A rocket launches into space with two UT satellites aboard

FASTRAC satellites built by students were launched into space. Click image to enlarge.

Even as NASA's future reached a crossroads in 2010, the Cockrell School's contribution to space exploration remained strong.

On April 5, 2010, astronaut and 1992 aerospace alum Stephanie Wilson was part of the STS-131 crew that launched aboard Discovery. The 15-day mission featured three spacewalks and a delivery to the International Space Station. Wilson is one of nine Cockrell School alumni to fly in space.

And even down below, our students are making an impact. On Nov. 19, a project that spanned seven years and required the help of more than 150 students finally came to fruition when their hand-built satellites were launched into space from the Kodiak Launch Complex in Alaska — making it the first student-developed mission in which satellites orbit and communicate with each other in real-time.

The two 60-plus pound satellites, named Emma and Sara Lily, were built entirely by Cockrell School students under the guidance of aerospace engineering Professor Glenn Lightsey.

"To give students the opportunity to learn by practicing what it is like to build something that will go into space, to go through all the processes to design the satellite, to build it, to physically integrate all the parts, to test it and meet certain specifications given by Air Force or NASA, and finally to operate the satellite in space – there is no way to fully teach that in a classroom setting," Lightsey said in December 2010.

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Leading research with an impact

Christine Schmidt works in her lab

Biomedical Engineering Professor Christine Schmidt. Click image to enlarge.

Research advancements by our faculty touched every facet of the science and engineering spectrum in 2010, from the development of a pen-size non-invasive device that can test for skin cancer in a matter of seconds to building a synthetic nerve that could help everyone from cancer patients, car accident victims, injured soldiers and people with spinal cord injuries.

The skin cancer detection device developed by biomedical engineering Assistant Professor James Tunnell was named in BusinessWeek as one of the "20 most important inventions of the next 10 years" and biomedical engineering Professor Christine Schmidt's research in nerves has garnered a patent and bridged the path from the lab to the market by helping more than 3,000 patients.

These are just two examples of transformative research coming out of the Biomedical Engineering Department chaired by Dr. Nicholas Peppas, whose own research has led to major advancements in drug delivery.

Even though the department only added an undergraduate degree program in 2001, its graduating class in 2009 was the fourth largest in the nation and its Ph.D. graduating class was the fifth largest, according to data released in 2010.

The department's growing imprint on the field was evident early last year when Professors George Georgiou and Krishnendu Roy were awarded more than $3 million in research grants from the newly established Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas.

The grants will fund much-needed, novel cancer therapies that take aim at two of the deadliest cancers — liver and lymphoma.

Wireless systems

If you've ever streamed a video over wireless Internet and, halfway through, the quality of the film suddenly waned, then you've been on the receiving end of the mammoth bandwidth dilemma that threatens to clog online video traffic even more in coming years.

Five Cockrell School professors were selected in 2010 to receive a $900,000 gift over three years from Intel and Cisco to develop innovative and novel algorithms that could improve the wireless networks ability to store, stream and share videos more efficiently.


Graphene has been dubbed in the media as a new "wonder" material, but for mechanical engineering Professor Rodney Ruoff, understanding the shiny and black atom-thick layer of carbon has been a professional pursuit for more than 12 years. Thanks to a $1 million research grant awarded by the W.M. Keck Foundation late last year, Ruoff and his research team will study ways to use graphene for large-scale production. If the research effort is successful, many believe graphene could one day surpass silicon, steel and plastic and thus transform how everything from electronics, cars, airplanes, and even buildings are produced.


Is a car really better than a pickup when it comes to selecting a safe vehicle for your teenager?

Transportation Professor Chandra Bhat thinks so. Results from a study he published in 2010 found that, among other things, a pickup could be the most dangerous vehicle for a 16-17 year old to drive, so much so that teens driving them are two times as likely to be severely injured during a crash than a teen of the same age driving a car.

Also adding to the public dialogue over driver safety was a report for the Transportation Research Board by civil engineering Professor Kara Kockelman, which found that being on a road with a 65 mph limit instead of 55 mph means a 3 percent higher probability of a crash taking place. Even more significant, according to the 2010 study, the crashes that do occur are far more deadly.

Electric cars

Cockrell School transportation professors also took the lead on finding sustainable transportation solutions. Engineering faculty at The University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University were selected to jointly operate the newly created Center for Transportation and Electricity Convergence. Established by the National Science Foundation along with multiple industrial partners, the center’s goal is to study the best methods for integrating a new power grid, new roadway networks and infrastructure systems for serving growing electric car demands.

Mechanical engineering Professors John B. Goodenough and Arumugam "Ram" Manthiram are also working to tackle one of the most difficult and perplexing hurdles facing electric vehicles: their batteries. The professors were awarded a $4.5 million, three-year grant along with Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) to investigate how to increase the amount of electrical energy a battery can store, while lowering the costs to produce. The grant was awarded by the U.S. Department of Energy and gives $2.1 million to The University of Texas at Austin and $2.4 million to ORNL, located in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Flood maps

Thanks to the help of environmental engineering Professor David Maidment and his graduate students, the west Texas town of Sanderson received much-needed updated flood maps in 2010. Maidment and his students used their spring break to travel to the town and complete most of the technical and complex analysis required in flood zone mapping. Maidment and the students' contribution earned them a Congressional "thank you," which the former U.S. House Representative for Sanderson's district, Ciro D. Rodriguez, made in July.

"This will leave a lasting effect on this community and we are grateful for your work," Rodriguez said.

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Inspired by one another

Edgar Jimenez sits with his dog in the endzone of the Longhorn football field

Edgar Jimenez sits with his dog in the endzone of the Longhorn football field. Click image to enlarge.

Just as faculty inspire their students, students inspire the campus community.

Cockrell School graduate, Edgar Jimenez, served as a living example to others on overcoming challenges. Diagnosed with muscular dystrophy when he was just one years old, Edgar went on to be valedictorian of his high school class, to graduate in December with highest honors, and to find a home and acceptance at The University of Texas at Austin campus where his love of football led him to the Longhorn Texas football team, which he supported by attending practices and tutoring players.

"I hope that I can be a living example that life will never give you more than you can handle," Edgar said in December 2010. "I've faced adversity every day of my life, but it's not brought me down."

Janeth Rodriguez of Laredo, Texas, a May graduate in chemical engineering was an example of a student who maximized her education. She interned at Procter & Gamble and Dow Chemical, she mentored underclassmen and inspired fifth graders through the UTeach Outreach program and she served as community service director and secretary of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers.

And, finally, inspiration in 2010 also came from impactful advice from guest speakers, like Milton Lee, CPS Energy CEO and alumnus, during the May commencement, and Dan Crowley, vice president of Raytheon Corporation and president of Raytheon Network Centric Systems as well as an alumnus, during the December 2010 commencement.

Some students even had the unique opportunity to hear from President Barack Obama at a presentation he made at Gregory Gym in August 2010.

"We're the United States of America, and like the Texas Longhorns," he said. "We play for first."

Continue reading...

Top 10 Stories of 2010

Explore the 10 most read stories of 2010.

From Classroom to Space: Engineering Students Launch Hand-Built Satellites. Seven years of work by more than 150 students on a shoestring budget ... Read the full story online.

Wasting Food Means Wasting Energy. Each day, American households on average throw away at least one and a half pounds of food ... Read the full story online.

Petroleum Engineering Honors Six Distinguished Alumni. The PGE department hosted its inaugural Distinguished Alumni reception ... Read the full story online.

Research Warns to Think Twice About Teens Driving Pickups. A pickup could be the most dangerous vehicle for a 16-17 year old to drive ... Read the full story online.

Electrical Engineers Offer Vision of Wireless Possibilities.Cockrell School faculty are tackling a big-picture wireless initiative, Network of Systems Vision ... Read the full story online.

Solar Car Shines in National Competition. For the first time in 15 years, a UT car completed the 1,100 mile American Solar Challenge ... Read the full story online.

Biomedical Professor Creates Device that Replaces Biopsies. A new tool from UT biomedical engineers makes it easy and painless to detect skin cancer ... Read the full story online.

Sustainable Energy: Barriers, Realities and Future Plans. Professors Baldick, Patzek and Edgar discuss the policy barriers, vivid realities and future strategies ... Read the full story online.

A Crossroads in Outer Space: Faculty Perspectives. In light of announcements about NASA's future, two aerospace engineering faculty offer their outlook for space exploration ... Read the full story online.

Cockrell School Engineers Address Haiti and Chile Needs. Civil engineering faculty and their graduate students traveled to Haiti to assess damage, collect data and comfort locals ... Read the full story online.