Interview with Kimberly E. Kurtis

Kinberly You won the ASCE Huber Prize in 2013, an award for promising young faculty who demonstrate notable achievements in research related to civil engineering. Can you tell us about the work that you did that led to you being awarded that prize?

Receiving the Huber Prize from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) was an incredible honor. The award citation states that it recognizes  “exceptional contributions in applying the principles of materials science to the solving practice problems in civil engineering, including hydration, deterioration, creep and non-destructive characterization of cement-based materials." I'm most proud that the award recognizes the breadth of the impact of my group's research, which has always focused on advancing the practice of concrete technology through scientific innovation.

Tell us why you chose to address this research question and whether you feel that you approach this from a unique angle.

Concrete is a ubiquitous material, used worldwide for structures that are essential for to support our existence (e.g., structures for water collection, storage and conveyance) and our economy (e.g., bridges and roads). Some version of this material has been used for thousands of years.  Yet, we still do not have a clear understanding of the structure and properties of the hydrated cement phases and how these are altered by their environment.

My group is recognized for its use of emerging characterization methods to bring new understanding to the multiscale structure of cement-based materials and to the interaction of this complex material with its environment.  For example, we've used proton NMR spectroscopy to better understand how renewable "internal curing" materials can support complete cement hydration while also mitigating shrinkage cracking. Right now, I'm also excited about an ongoing US NSF-funded collaboration with Reza Zoughi at Missouri University of Science and Technology and Larry Jacobs at Georgia Tech, where we're gaining new insights through a multi-physics approach, which uses measurements acquired through microwave, acoustic and neutron scattering methods, to assess how water is bound within a potentially damaging reaction product and how that translates into progressive cracking and damage in concrete. 

Has the work you’ve done made a big difference to work in this area? Why was it such an important question to address (perhaps link it to the practical application of the research)?

Because of the vast amounts of concrete used each year worldwide - only water is used more! - even relatively modest improvements in the sustainability of this material can have large impact on reducing global energy consumption and greenhouse gases. Reducing the amount of cement needed to produce good quality concrete, developing "greener" cement chemistries, and developing technologies that extend the service life of concrete construction will allow us to meet societal demand for infrastructure development in a sustainable way.

We know that you’ve been involved on the editorial board of Cement and Concrete Composites. What did you learn from that experience?

Serving on the Editorial Board of one of the top journals in our field was a valuable opportunity to "look under the hood". Standards for publication are high, and (apparently) always increasing. That said, being part of the process allowed me to see the time and dedication of the reviewers, editorial board, and journal staff to make sure the process occurs both as fairly and as expediently as possible.

Why did you decide to go into engineering?

Engineering, to me, is creative problem solving. I really enjoy the challenge of using basic science and math principles to address important societal problems.

Do you have a role model in engineering and why?

Second semester Chemistry in my freshman year in college, our professor was a newly-minted female PhD; that was the first time it occurred to me that being an engineering professor is something I might aspire to.

Throughout my graduate studies and career, I've been fortunate to have many exceptional mentors who have guided me in everything from research to office politics (yes, we have that in academia too).  I especially have valued the advice of my PhD advisor Paulo Monteiro, at UC Berkeley, over the years as well as colleagues at Georgia Tech, including Larry Jacobs, Larry Kahn, Reggie DesRoches, and David Frost.

Which word or phrase do you most overuse?

"Yes!" and all variations of that word, e.g., "In!", "We'd love to help!", "Of course!" etc.


Dr. Kimberly (Kim) E. Kurtis is currently Associate Dean for Faculty Development and Scholarship in the College of Engineering, where she manages the reappointment, tenure, peer review, and selection processes for the College’s faculty and researchers, leads faculty development initiatives, and assists with management of faculty hiring strategies and inclusion programs, and is a Professor in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology. She is also half of a “Tech couple” and a mother to two daughters, ages 8 and 10.

Dr. Kurtis joined Tech’s faculty in January 1999. She earned her BSE (1994) in Civil Engineering from Tulane University under a Deans Honor Scholarship and her PhD (1998) in Civil Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley, where she was a Henry Hilp Fellow and a National Science Foundation (NSF) Fellow. Dr. Kurtis’s innovative research on the multi-scale structure and performance of cement-based materials has resulted in more than 100 technical publications and two US patents.

In addition to her technical and educational service contributions at the American Concrete Institute (ACI), American Ceramics Society (ACerS), Transportation Research Board (TRB), and Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), she has held two leadership positions – Chairman of ACI Committee 236: Materials Science of Concrete (2006-2012) and Chair of American Ceramic Society’s Cements Division (2008-2009) – central to advancing science-based research on cement-based materials. Dr. Kurtis has served as Associate Editor of ASCE Journal of Materials in Civil Engineering, is an Editorial Board member of Cement and Concrete Composites, and is one of twelve members of ACI’s Technical Activities Committee (TAC). She has been honored with ACI’s Walter P. Moore, Jr. Faculty Achievement Award (2005), ACI’s Del Bloem Award for Service (2013), Outstanding Senior Undergraduate Research Mentor Award at Georgia Institute of Technology (2013), the ACI James Instruments Award for Research on NDE of Concrete (2008), Award for Outstanding Article in ASTM’s Journal of Testing and Evaluation (2010), and ASCE’s Huber Civil Engineering Research Prize (2013). Dr. Kurtis is Fellow of the American Concrete Institute and the American Ceramics Society.