Risky business

YeongAe Heo standing before an FPSO, a Floating Production, Storage and Offloading unit destined for the gas fields on the North Sea off Norway. 


Her ability to assess risks to critical infrastructure in an age of climate change makes YeongAe Heo a rising star in civil engineering

Changes are coming to the world’s oldest engineering discipline, civil engineering. The people who design and build our roads, bridges, power systems and seaports face new demands as structures get bigger and nature grows more powerful.

It’s becoming a world that needs people like YeongAe Heo, an assistant professor of civil engineering at the Case School of Engineering. She’s a specialist in structural performance evaluation and what the industry calls probalistic hazard and risk assessment.

She’s the person you call to find out what kind of extreme forces your deep-sea production platform can withstand, or how your community can better protect the harbor from hurricanes.

As an expert in risk management for critical infrastructure, she’s also a person spending a lot of time pondering potential disasters and how to lessen the impact.

“We have to anticipate all kinds of possible scenarios,” Heo explains. “I have a big motivation to protect our infrastructure. Basically, to protect our communities.”

That’s become a tall order. The pieces of our civil infrastructure keep getting bigger, taller and more sophisticated, as do the forces hurtling against them. Climate change portends stronger and more extreme weather in the decades ahead.                                                     

Heo, who holds three patents for offshore structural systems, was a key structure and risk engineer for Samsung Heavy Industries before joining the Case School of Engineering in 2014.  David Zeng, the chair of the Department of Civil Engineering, said she expands the school’s research capabilities with her expertise in an emerging niche. He also sees her as a role model for women pursuing civil engineering careers.

“We have to make sure the old structures are still safe,” and build new ones that last, Heo said. Her ability to quantify the risk of structural failure, and advise how to mitigate it, has made her a rising star in the civil engineering ranks.

Barely three years after joining the faculty, Heo was selected for an early career fellowship by the Gulf Research Program of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. The award will support her research into minimizing risks of natural and man-made disasters on offshore oil and gas systems, with the aim of making the structures more resilient.

More recently, she was selected as a 2018 American Society of Civil Engineers ExCEEd Fellow. It comes with an invitation to West Point to attend a workshop on new techniques for teaching civil engineering and preparing students for the field’s changing demands.

That’s a subject that fires her passion.

Heo’s fascination with structural engineering began in her hometown of Busan, Korea, where her father was a builder. She studied architecture as an undergraduate but gravitated toward protecting and preserving what had already been built.

“It was my childhood dream to be a great architect,” she said. “But then I realized, ‘Oh, there’s more important, more interesting engineering--protecting those beautiful structures.”

For her doctorate in civil engineering at the University of California, Davis, she focused on risk assessment for buildings in earthquake zones. She saw the future.

“At the time, risk was not a popular topic in my field,” she said. “The trend was prescriptive design,” building to codes and standards.

But what if the codes and standards are no longer good enough?

When she joined the field of offshore engineering, her eagerness to assess risk was welcomed. Samsung made her its lead safety and risk management engineer in its Offshore Technology R&D Division.

Heo quickly realized that hers was a lonely field. Not many people did her kind of work, calculating and quantifying risk. If she was to find more peers, she would have to train them.

Looking for an American university to join, she discovered Case.

“A the time, Dean Jeffrey Duerk really encouraged cooperation among the faculty,” Heo said. “My field, especially, requires multi-disciplinary teamwork.”

From a windowed office on the second floor of the Bingham Building, she enjoys a serene view of Case Quad that contrasts with the anxiety inherent in her work. She said she loves the collaborative atmosphere at Case, the research showcases that help colleagues to share work and insights, and the city that has become her home.

“I really like the weather,” she said of Cleveland. “It’s a lot like Korea. Maybe a little colder in winter, but the seasons are beautiful.” 

Learn more about opportunities in civil engineering at the Case School of Engineering at http://engineering.case.edu/eciv/