August 26, 2002

The King of Rock ’n’ Roll

UCSD’s Frieder Seible Is Helping California Stand Up to Earthquakes

Drive far enough in California and you are bound to encounter Frieder Seible’s work.

It may be in the humble metal tubes holding the columns of a freeway overpass.

It may be in the soaring bridge towers going up in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Seible, a structural engineer and a UCSD professor, devises ways to strengthen bridges to withstand earthquakes.

His research also takes in ways to protect buildings from bomb blasts.

Seible, 50, has spent most of his career in UCSD’s engineering department, which has historically been a cradle for San Diego high-tech businesses.

He took the top post at the university’s Jacobs School of Engineering this summer when Dean Robert Conn left to become a managing director with San Diego-based Enterprise Partners Venture Capital.

Seible is interim dean and a candidate for the permanent job. He is quick to say there is a national search to fill the position. He also said he has specific ideas on where he wants the school to go — but with the search under way it would not be appropriate to air them.

In any event, Seible says the place will not be stagnant. “I’m here to really push the school already to new levels,” he said.

Both the Jacobs School and UCSD expect to grow. Last winter, when Seible was executive associate dean under Conn, he predicted the need for 100 new faculty in the next decade.

He also wrote of technological shifts in the coming years.

Shorter-Lived Jobs, Technology

“More and more, products, technology and jobs will be shorter-lived,” he said in an in-house publication. “We need to evaluate our overall education approach so that we are not training our students for one particular career, but for a multitude of careers which they will engage in during their productive working lives.”

Shifting ground seems to be a theme in Seible’s work.

If there was a defining moment for that work, it was 1989.

Seible had been at UCSD for six years. An earthquake simulation lab — the Charles Lee Powell Structural Systems Laboratory — had been on campus for three. Already Seible and his cohorts were working for Caltrans, testing the concept of wrapping freeway columns in steel so they could better withstand temblors.

On an October evening a Magnitude 6.9 earthquake hit the urban areas on San Francisco Bay. A short section of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge collapsed, as did an extended section of a nearby double-deck highway.

The disaster became known as the Loma Prieta quake. As is his custom, Seible traveled to the affected area to view the structural damage before authorities cleaned it up.

A Whole Lot Of Shaking

When he came home, he still felt the effects of the earthquake. Demand for the UCSD’s earthquake testing services increased. In the years since, three more testing facilities have gone up.

The university is now clearing land at Camp Elliott for a 25-by-40-foot, outdoor “shake table” that will simulate earthquakes and evaluate the strength of casks to store spent nuclear fuel rods.

All told, UCSD’s backlog for earthquake tests is two years.

“We have not caught up with the work yet, essentially since Loma Prieta,” Seible said. “Our lab was ready and operational at the right time. I really credit Loma Prieta for a lot of the activities in the Powell labs.”

The original Powell lab is a narrow space capable of holding a five-story building. Looking up gives you a sense of vertigo.

Today in the building, components of the replacement San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge are being moved by large, piston-like servo-hydraulics, all to simulate the stress of an earthquake.

The replacement bridge, which Seible had a hand in designing, includes what he calls “sacrificial elements.” They are pieces that will break in certain parts when put under stress.

“We target the elements where we want to see the damage. We don’t leave it up to the earthquake to tell us where it wants to damage the structure,” he said.

Controlling Damage

The lab includes a one-quarter scale reinforced concrete bridge pier which, as predicted, is flaking apart at the base.

The ideal design would relegate damage to places where it may be inspected and repaired without interrupting the flow of traffic.

Seible’s ideas will go on two other Bay Area spans — the new Carquinez Bridge and the new Benicia-Martinez Bridge.

“Big structures with a lot of risk attached” is how Peter Taylor describes bridges. Taylor is a principal with Buckland and Taylor Ltd., an engineering firm in North Vancouver, British Columbia. He is now working with Seible —whom he has known since the 1980s — on a large span in earthquake-prone Greece.

“There are large repercussions in failure,” Taylor said, describing Seible as cautious and conservative in his work.

He added Seible is “very, very strong technically,” and good with people as well — persuasive in his arguments and able to direct a team of peers.

“The man is a natural leader,” he said.

Had it not been for the structures lab project, Seible may not have come to UCSD, much less the dean’s office.

He was born in Schwaebisch Gmuend, Germany and attended college at the nearby University of Stuttgart. Seible went on to the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, for his master’s in civil engineering, and to UC Berkeley for his doctorate.

He then returned to Germany for a short while to work as a bridge designer. The early 1980s also had him looking into nuclear power plant domes that could withstand impacts from aircraft.

A Berkeley professor tipped him off to a UCSD opening about the time another school — the University of Southern California — came courting him. Seible came to the Southland to inspect both. He said he liked San Diego’s climate, as well as the prospect of building the local campus’ new structural testing facility.

Today he holds the Eric and Johanna Reissner chair in applied mechanics and structural engineering.

Seible and his wife, Betsy, live in Encinitas with their children: Michael, 17, Daniel, 15 and Anika, 13. In his off hours, Seible enjoys going to his second home in the Cuyamaca Mountains.

Since taking on increased responsibilities in the dean’s office, Seible has sold his engineering consulting business. He’s also vowing to cut back on his travel.

Defense Applications

Like other academics and business people, Seible is trying to figure out how federal funds will flow to homeland security projects. This year, he said, UCSD’s engineering faculty has more than 40 projects with homeland security implications in process. Seible is part of a team working on a way to monitor critical infrastructures — specifically the Coronado Bridge — from afar.

If there is a project that sets the tone for the times, it may be Seible’s work for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

The agency wants to protect buildings from bomb blasts. One candidate for work is the U.S. embassy in Athens.

In a nod to classical architecture, noted architect Walter Gropius designed the embassy with square columns that were covered with marble. Seible recommends removing the marble shells, wrapping the columns with carbon fiber material, then putting the marble back on.

He says it’s just as effective, better aesthetically, and a cheaper choice than the alternative — a 30-foot wall.

SPOTLIGHT: Frieder Seible

Title: Interim dean, UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering
Education: Diploma, University of Stuttgart; master of science, University of Calgary; doctorate, University of California, Berkeley, all in civil engineering
Age: 50
Residence: Encinitas
Birthplace: Schwaebisch Gmuend, Germany
Family: Wife Betsy, children Michael, 17, Daniel, 15, and Anika, 13
Hobbies: Spending time in his house in the Cuyamacas

Reprint Courtesy the San Diego Business Journal

© 2002 San Diego Business Journal