This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Faculty envision worldwide UB recognition related to extreme events

Published: June 30, 2005

Contributing Editor

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Working from an aggressive vision statement that calls for UB to be recognized worldwide for its expertise in the "mitigation and response to extreme events," 57 UB faculty members from various disciplines came together yesterday to discuss how to leverage UB's existing strengths and pursue new opportunities to make that vision a reality.


Discussions at the "envisioning retreat" in the Center for Tomorrow—the eighth of 10 such retreats to be held as part of the UB 2020 strategic planning process—focused primarily on how to expand on UB's current expertise in the mitigation of earthquakes, an extreme event for which UB has decades of experience in research centered on earthquake engineering, preparedness and response.

By leveraging UB's strengths in other key areas—such as immunology, geography, public health, geology, chemistry, computer science, urban planning, psychology and civil engineering—retreat participants, many of whom represented these academic areas, discussed development of a "multi-hazard" approach to event mitigation and response.

This approach would focus on making more resilient to a range of extreme events critical facilities (hospitals, airports, power plants, government buildings), as well as protection of critical "lifelines" or infrastructure (transportation, systems, power grids, water supply, etc).

Such a strategy would move beyond earthquakes to include mitigation, preparedness and response to other natural and man-made extreme events, such as terrorist attacks, volcanic eruptions, pandemic viruses, industrial accidents, landslides and even global warming, according to retreat moderator Michel Bruneau, professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering and director of the Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research (MCEER), headquartered at UB.

"The focus on extreme events is more representative of UB's diversified portfolio of strengths," Bruneau said. "It will enable us to merge different fields together, giving us the best opportunity for achieving significant academic prominence."

"Getting us together (at the retreat) is the first step in igniting the spark that will enable execution of this vision," he added. "Linkages will form where we didn't even think linkages were possible. It starts to make possible tackling the kinds of projects that we would not have envisioned before."

Future projects, according to Bruneau, would not be limited to responding to catastrophic events, but could focus on the whole disaster cycle—response, recovery, mitigation, risk reduction, prevent and preparedness—which would open the door to collaboration among UB researchers and departments.

Modeling a terrorist attack on a facility that houses hazardous materials, for example, would involve cross-disciplinary work across campus focused on the epidemiological impact of hazardous materials, analysis of blast forces, development of sensors in the building that would transmit safety data to emergency responders and modeling of the evacuation process and emergency response.

In presentations and breakout sessions throughout the day, retreat participants discussed strengths and opportunities that could contribute to UB's potential for prominence in mitigation and response to extreme events.

William T. Ruyechan, director of the Witebasky Center for Microbial Pathogenesis and Immunology, said the center's work could aid in the development of sensors to detect the presence of biological agents used in a terrorist attack, and in the preparation of vaccines.

John Hay, Grant T. Fisher Chair and Professor of Microbiology and Immunology, pointed out that "nature is the biggest terrorist," and said that the work of various labs and researchers could aid in mitigation and response to spread of new and emerging infectious diseases and man-made bio-warfare agents, as well as the development of new therapies and vaccines for these diseases and agents.

"There are people here who can design sensors that can detect infectious agents in buildings and there are engineers who have developed technologies that are capable of responding to that event," Hay said. "There's an interface here between people who design structures and people who think about the dangers of being inside that structure that we clearly should be able to build on."

David M. Mark, professor of geography and director of the Buffalo site of the National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis, said the department's expertise in geographic information systems could be utilized to select locations for critical facilities, model the spread of infectious diseases and develop data systems for improving emergency-response times.

Michael F. Sheridan, UB Distinguished Professor of Geology, said his work modeling volcanic eruptions, landslides and even climate change through UB's Geohazard Studies Center would be a natural tie-in with future activities and research in extreme event mitigation and response.

According to Thomas McMahon, project administrator at the Calspan-UB Research Center (CUBRC), UB's leadership in extreme event mitigation and response would have great potential to attract funding from a variety of government and industry sources focused on research and applications for biodefense and homeland security.

"Interest in these areas is very robust," McMahon said.

Bruneau will lead a team of UB faculty members in writing a white paper describing recommendations made at the retreat and suggesting next steps for collaboration, investment and resource allocation.