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How a strong research career begins

Master's student Faith Zangl and Associate Professor Bill Likos discuss Zangl's research on landfill liners.

Bill Likos’ first year as an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering exemplifies how donor resources set up researchers to succeed in the long run.

Likos wants to lead the geotechnical engineering field toward a greater understanding of how unsaturated soils behave and affect buildings and infrastructure. Since he joined the civil and environmental engineering and geological engineering faculty in fall 2012, he’s built a research foundation that will help him attract support for future progress. In fact, the National Science Foundation has already funded Likos’ research into soils and geothermal energy.

The donor-funded “startup package” the department provides for new faculty helped Likos establish his lab. “A lot of the equipment includes big-ticket items that would otherwise be difficult to get funding for,” he says.

Just as important is who’s helping Likos set up and operate that equipment. 

“My startup has been a huge benefit in terms of bringing people in right away,” Likos says, referring to the four masters’ students he brought on board to help him in his research last year. Currently, he works with six grad students and also uses startup funds to pay undergraduate researchers in his lab.

“Those are undergraduates we have identified as outstanding, and we want to give them close mentorships to help them transition into graduate research,” he says.

Because of his team of students, Likos has already been able to make research advances that wouldn’t have been possible without that initial jump-start.

“We’re starting to ask important questions about how fluctuations in the environment affects the soil that we’re building our infrastructure on,” he says. “Startups have had a direct impact on our ability to make original research contributions.”

Scott Gordon