Civil engineering’s virtual Transportation Infrastructure Center is a collaborative powerhouse
Charlie Nemmers was working as director of the Office of Engineering R&D for the Federal Highway Administration in Washington D.C. in 1998 when he met Sam Kiger at a meeting. At the time, Kiger was chairman of MU Engineering’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
As the two men chatted, Nemmers shared his idea of building teams of researchers to respond to areas of existing transportation need as identified by entities such as the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) — research partnerships
“The college wanted to build a transportation program, and Sam thought it was an interesting idea,” said Nemmers. “He told me he thought I should come work at MU.” Expanding the transportation emphasis in civil engineering’s playbook was on the college’s wish list, but a vital research program would be necessary for its development.
“The only tool I really had was networking,” said Nemmers. “And when we found out the needs of MoDOT and other public agencies, we were able to hire faculty to address them. We don’t write proposals to see who will fund them; we talk to people to see how we can address their needs.”
Thus the highly successful, virtual Transportation Infrastructure Center (TIC) with Nemmers at its helm was conceived and created. But research under the center’s umbrella hasn’t strictly adhered to the tradition of transportation as Nemmers has sought out partners to fill associated research needs
As an example, Nemmers said that in collaboration with MU Professor Tom Johnson in agriculture economics, the transportation team was able to take on a project that also required economic development outcomes.
Reaching across the aisle is one of the TIC’s specialties.
At a College of Engineering dinner, Nemmers met David Haffner, the CEO of Leggett and Platt, a Missouri-based company with 18,000 employees based in 17 countries that conceives and produces a broad array of products.
“We put in place an option for civil engineering to be an extension of the company program that has resulted in a portfolio of research in all civil disciplines,” Nemmers said.
One of the projects shared with Leggett and Platt was a anti-microbial fabric that sprang from Nemmers connecting the dots between a civil engineering colleague looking at anti-microbial qualities of silver nanoparticles in water filtration, an existing erosion control fabric project, an unfunded proposal to make anti-microbial medic’s uniforms, a chance meeting with a textile and apparel management faculty member and finally, a capstone class that eventually developed seven product lines for high-end sportswear. Nike is said to be interested.
“These are the kinds of things that come out of the center,” Nemmers said. “We can bring a lot of people to the table. Answers come at the edges of these discussions and that’s where discoveries are.”
The team came to realize the problems they were tackling had implications that rippled across the entire nation and they were players on much larger stage.
When the Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA) of the U.S. Department of Transportation re-competed its regional University Transportation Centers program, MU Engineering partnered with team leader Iowa State University, and Creighton University in Nebraska, Wichita State University and Missouri universities Harris- Stowe State University and University of Missouri St. Louis to be selected as the Region 7 Midwest Transportation Center (MTC). Funding for the program comes from the 2012 federal transportation bill’s Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century.
This year, in their successful bid for a second round of Region 7 two-year funding, the MTC consortium’s research focus area, “State of Good Repair,” is all about data-driven performance measures of transportation infrastructure, traffic safety and project construction. Also supported are education programs, leadership development, promotion of diversity and outreach efforts.
The MTC program requires the group to work with state entities such as MoDOT to identify and propose projects that will fulfill a need in the state and will contribute to national outcomes with technology transfer. Funding — $1.2 million to MU’s group— must be matched by these entities in a consultant relationship. Out of the nine projects MU proposed as part of the Region 7 consortium, seven are funded.
The projects include a support system for DOT fleet assignment and operation; evaluation of bridges to provide data to support performance management; development of an effective asset management system for local governments; risk and liability management in the area of transportation safety and an examination of available traffic safety treatments to establish guidelines for their implementation. Civil engineering transportation, geotechnical and structural engineering faculty and one industrial and manufacturing systems faculty member will serve as principal investigators.
Also included in the funding is Nemmers’ piece of the pie, which includes funding for the Missouri State Transportation Library to support a dedicated transportation librarian; a transportation scholars program that supports travel to conferences by graduate students; support and participation in a regular transportation seminar series; dissemination of technology transfer activities and additional communication about projects.
“It’s like I’m on a parish council,” Nemmers said of his involvement. “I play no formal leadership role. I just realize what can be done.”
Nemmers also plays a key role in organizing and staging the state’s Annual Traffic and Safety conference with MoDOT as the sponsor.
“There are over 200 attendees with speakers from all over the country. It is one of the most well regarded state transportation conferences in the U.S.,” said Nemmers. New ideas and discoveries are showcased at the event and professionals and students network with one another.
“I have really been blessed,” Nemmers said of his TIC efforts in the MU College of Engineering. “I work with so many really great people, both the researchers and people like Mary McCush [civil engineering’s business support specialist]. Her support in the convoluted contractual agreements has been invaluable.
“We have a great team. We try hard to do good, high quality work and complete it on time. They’re all good people who work well together.
“It’s been a great experience.”