Published: Aug. 24, 2021 By

Joelle WestcottJoelle Westcott is using high-speed centrifuges to study soil during earthquakes.

A rising senior in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder, Westcott has landed a major honor from the U.S. Department of Defense: a SMART Scholarship.

The federal program provides awardees with full education funding, summer internships and a guaranteed job upon graduation.

“It’s exciting. It became even more exciting once I met the team and visited the facility where I’m going to intern and work. The facility is part of the Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) which has the most powerful centrifuge in the world,” Westcott said.

Located in Vicksburg, Mississippi, the ERDC laboratory aims to solve challenging problems in civil and military engineering and is part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

It is a thrilling step for Westcott, who initially became involved in centrifuge work at CU Boulder through pre-existing experience, not with high-speed machines but rather, digital cameras.

“My freshman year I was looking for a job to support myself and saw an ad in the CEAE newsletter that they were trying to hire in the Center for Infrastructure Energy and Space Testing (CIEST) lab, which has a large centrifuge,” she said. “They were starting to set up digital image correlation research to track particles of sand at high speeds. I knew about cameras, so I got the job.”

The CIEST Centrifuge.The CIEST centrifuge in the Engineering Center.

Centrifuges are used in earthquake research to study soil liquefaction, which is when normally solid ground effectively turns into a liquid during shaking and can topple buildings.

“Doing this kind of research has been very fun. It has allowed me to use my hands and experience the phenomenon instead of just learning about the theory. I’ve always had a dream of having an office and field work balance. Therefore, I think this job at ERDC will be a very good match for me,” she said.

Researchers like Westcott build models of ground conditions and structures in a lab and place them on shake tables inside a centrifuge, which is then spun up to scale what a full-size structure would experience during an earthquake.

“Engineering is a place where I can make a difference. I can be creative and innovative,” Westcott said. “During our research at CIEST, we often look at what we can do to reduce liquefaction, usually looking at ways to make the soil stronger or the building more stable.”

Following her senior year, Westcott will be completing a master’s degree at CU Boulder. She will then become a full-time employee at ERDC.

As a Colorado native, Mississippi will be a big change, but she is excited to make her mark in research and industry.

“When I started in the centrifuge lab on campus, it was almost like an apprenticeship where I was an engineer-in-training. Now I get to be an engineer who is responsible for their own experiments,” she said. “I’m excited about working on technical papers where I am contributing to the overall knowledge available to the entire world.”

The ERDC centrifuge
The ERDC centrifuge in Vicksburg, Mississippi.