We usually think of things like buildings and bridges as passive lumps of concrete and metal, but every structure moves and vibrates as people walk around it. Even when you’re sitting still at a desk, your breathing and heartbeat create vibrations. My lab looks for ways to use that information to improve the lives of a building’s inhabitants.
In healthcare settings, we might be able to detect if someone has fallen down based on tiny spikes in building vibration, or even know how a disease is progressing over weeks or months based on people’s walking patterns. Is a patient favoring one foot or the other? Has their activity level changed? It could provide a way to monitor patients’ health no matter where they are in a building. We can even tell if doctors are washing their hands before seeing patients, measure how long they’re washing, and detect if they’re using soap — all from different building vibrations. That could be really useful during the COVID-19 pandemic.
I’ve always loved this sort of interdisciplinary problem-solving. Becoming a scientist was my dream job when I was a kid in Korea. I actually went to a science-focused high school there, but came to the U.S. during my first year of high school because I wanted to be an astronaut. I went to Cornell Aerospace for graduate school, but then discovered that becoming an astronaut requires a ton of physical exercise — like military-level training — so I decided maybe it wasn’t for me. Instead, I got interested in how big objects interact and vibrate and switched to earthquake engineering at Stanford to study, and that sort of got me into what I do now.
Along the way, I really just followed my interests, even if they didn’t turn out how I expected. I always tell new students to do the same. Don’t be afraid to explore new ideas. Don’t be limited by saying, ‘Oh, I’m a civil engineer. I can only do buildings and bridges,’ or, ‘Oh, I’m a computer scientist, I shouldn’t touch what the mechanical engineers do.’ If you start limiting your thoughts, that will also limit your ability as well. Make a point to step outside of your familiar boundaries. It may be scary at the beginning because you have to deal with something unfamiliar, but failing will actually give you an excellent lesson. Research in general can’t happen without learning something you didn’t know before — so you’re bound to fail at some point. Embrace it: It’s a blessing.