Interview with Suzanne Lacasse

Sarah Bell Dr Lacasse was born in the small town of Noranda in northern Québec, Canada. She did first a Bachelor of Arts and then took her education in Civil Engineering at Ecole Polytechnique of Montréal and MIT. She was Managing Director of the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute (NGI) from 1991 to 2011, and now acts as Technical Director at NGI. During the early part, soil behaviour modelling and foundation engineering and design. She concentrated on combining mathematical and numerical analyses with practical geotechnical engineering design. She was a key member of the NGI-team developing practical design analysis procedures for offshore platforms subjected to storm loading.

Since the mid 80s, she developed and applied statistics, probability and reliability methods to assist in foundation design and decision-making. She is well known for her contributions on hazard and risk assessment and risk management. Dr Lacasse gave in 2001 the 37th Terzaghi Lecture on Offshore Geotechnics, in 2013 the 8th ISSMGE Terzaghi Oration on Landslides and in 2015 the 55th Rankine Lecture on Hazard, Risk and Reliability in Geotechnical Practice. Dr Lacasse received PhD's Honoris Causa from the University of Dundee and from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. She is a member of the National Academy of Engineers in the USA, Canada, Norway and France. She is Honorary Professor at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, and Chair of the Slope Safety Technical Review Board in Hong Kong. She has given keynote lectures in over 30 countries, and is the author of over 300 scientific papers.

Please share with us a project you worked on. What did the project achieve? What were some of the biggest challenges you faced during the project? Do you plan to follow up on this project in the future?

I have worked on many projects throughout the years, and it is always seems like the next project is more exciting than the previous one. One project I can share is a geotechnical engineering project on the risk assessment for the Roșia Montană tailings dam for a gold mine in Romania, which was done at the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute in Oslo. The risks around dam construction include dam breach with the tailings with residue contaminants escaping from the containment area, with possibly significant negative impact on residents and the environment downstream. Before dam construction, government, residents and neighboring countries were questioning what were the risks associated with the construction of the dam in that location. The assessment report (which was over 200 pages long, with super large risk charts), was one of the instruments for the government to make a decision on whether or not to proceed with the construction. The most interesting and challenging was how to "translate" this technical study into common languages that stakeholders, the European Commission and the residents would be interested in. We had to translate our engineering jargon (shear stresses, probability of dam breach and finite element analysis…) into conversational format with telling graphic to explain the technical issues and illustrate that the risk were indeed very, very low. Tailings dams have a poor track record compared to water retaining dams, and failures, such as the recent Mount Polley tailings dam in British Columbia, Canada in August 2014, need to be prevented. After the Mount Polley failure, a comparison was immediately made between the Mount Polley and the Roșia Montană tailings dams. The Roșia Montană had none of the critical characteristics of the Mount Polley tailings dam, so the Romanian design is much safer. It is challenging but essential, in our profession, to communicate effectively with the public and to make them aware and help them understand the risks of an infrastructure.

Why did you decide to go into engineering?

Well, I love mathematics. The structure and logic of mathematics mean much to me. Numbers are fascinating and very special. My father was an engineer working for a contractor company, and I always wanted to be an engineer and do calculations like he did. I completed my early studies quite young, so my father suggested that I should first study something more "feminine" than engineering (this was the early 1960s). After completing classical studies (literature and philosophy), I still wanted to be an engineer. I got full encouragement of my whole family. The choice of civil then geotechnical engineering was perhaps more a coincidence, I was interested in Chemical, Mining, Geological and Metallurgical engineering. The secret for a successful career, in any field, is simply to enjoy what you do. Then it is so much easier to do the work, and it is not difficult to do some overtime!

Is there one thing engineers could Engineers do to the well-being of the general?

The focus of civil engineers has changed over the years and it will continue to change. Traditionally, civil engineering focused mainly on technical issues, on how to big higher, explore deeper, design longer bridge spans, access even deeper waters, …. Communication was less of an imperative. Nowadays, our profession, also influenced by the younger generation, is setting people values first, i.e. protecting people, property and the environment and reducing risk. It has become an essential part of the design. The technical solutions need to go in pair with caring for the environment and reducing costs. Today, most of the civil engineering projects are part of sustainable development plans, in addition to the need to include the impact of climate change (e.g. more frequent landslides). Certainly, civil engineers still work on projects such as oil or gas recovery and exploitation, since the world needs more energy than before, but civil engineering is also a major contributor to hydropower, wind and other renewable energies. We can see, with the elegant turbines rising in many seas, the huge advances made with wind energy in Europe and around the world. You may notice that engineers are normally of a practical nature. They look at the whole picture and try to find a balance in the solutions to be developed. The change in such perceptions and processes have been gradual, and will continue. The contributions from civil engineers ensure the absolute necessities of living (from drinking water to energy) and maintain life quality. So the civil engineer needs to be responsible for sustainable development.

How would you like to encourage young people who are interested in engineering to join the profession?

In engineering, there are opportunities to study how things are designed or built and to shape the future environment we, and our children, will live in. Civil engineering is part of everyday life including clean water, road and railway construction, tunneling, buildings, hydropower, offshore energy etc. Being a civil engineer means that one has the opportunity to change or optimize how things are done. Engineering is not just cold numbers and facts anymore, we are making the environment safer and reducing the risk associated with for example earthquakes, floods and landslides. There is nowadays enhanced communication with the public. Those are enormous, yet fascinating, tasks for our profession to solve.

What's your favorite phrase?

"Seize the opportunities!" One should say grasp the opportunities to learn more and broaden one's experience, and one should ensure that the opportunities become positive experience. Usually that happens with hard work!