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Quake Engineer Built Seismograph in 6th Grade

On July 14, 2009, this six-story, woodframe condominium building — shown here being transported onto the world’s largest shake table — will be shaken with earthquake forces that occur, on average, only once every 2,500 years. The project is headed up by John van de Lindt of Colorado State University. Read more at (Image credit: John van de Lindt, Colorado State University)

Editor's Note: ScienceLives is an occasional series that puts scientists under the microscope to find out what makes them tick. The series is a cooperation between the National Science Foundation and LiveScience.

Name: John W. van de Lindt Age: 39 Institution: Colorado State University Field of Study: Structural Engineering – Natural Hazards Research – Effects on the Constructed Environment

John van de Lindt, an associate professor of structural engineering at Colorado State University, is leading a team of researchers conducting the NSF NEESWood Capstone tests, the largest shake-table tests in history. The culmination of a multi-year effort to inform new design methods for woodframe construction in earthquake-prone areas, the tests subject woodframe structures to simulations of earthquakes, culminating in a final test in Miki, Hyogo, Japan. The final test will shake the structure to the motions of the 1994 Northridge earthquake in California, but with one and a half times the intensity – an earthquake grander in scale than any California has seen in modern times. Check out for more information about the Capstone tests.  For more about Dr. van de Lindt, watch a live Webcast featuring the final test, at 11:00 am EDT on July 14, 2009 at, an opportunity to ask questions of van de Lindt and others involved with the project. Van de Lindt answers the ScienceLives 10 Questions below. What inspired you to choose this field of study? I've been interested in natural hazards since I was very young. I built a seismograph with a coffee can and a spring when I was in about 6th grade. My interest in science developed from there, but I found I had more interest in things that could be applied quicker so I suspect that is why I moved to engineering. What is the best piece of advice you ever received? Don't worry about making money, it'll come. Just find something that you enjoy doing so work isn't work.   What was your first scientific experiment as a child? The seismograph described in the first question.  I also played with chemistry sets once in a while. What is your favorite thing about being a scientist or researcher? The real beauty of scientific or engineering research is that we get to define our own problems and then solve them, and go even farther and implement/apply them. Making a problem solvable or at least harnessing the scope of a problem is the most difficult — we can almost always solve an engineering problem if we can understand it. That moment when you realize that you've defined the scope in a realistic and solvable way is my favorite point during a project.   What is the most important characteristic a scientist must demonstrate in order to be an effective scientist? While a researcher has to be good, they must also be willing to know when they're moving toward a cliff. If something is not working, cut the string and try something else. No one picks the right approach every time. What are the societal benefits of your research? Reducing damage and loss of life in light-frame wood buildings during earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis. Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher? This is a tough question. My father, retired now, was a physicist so we were always taught that math and science were the keys to success in a career. My Ph.D. adviser at Texas A&M University, John Niedzwecki, taught me how to formally do research — defining the problem and getting a manageable approach for a solution. In reality, I think everyone I've had discussions with, even disagreements (maybe even particularly disagreements since they broaden your perspective), has provided me insight into my field. I must have talked with thousands of people over the years and to narrow it down might be impossible. What about your field or being a scientist do you think would surprise people the most? I think most people think of science and someone in a white jacket with test tubes and beakers, mixing potions. In reality, engineering research involves work on paper as well as building and breaking specimens in laboratories. I'm in Japan this summer and in the last week I've used a nail gun, tightened steel, checked stairs following a shake table test to make sure they're safe for the damage inspectors, and the list goes on and on. The most satisfying thing is when you know you've contributed to society as a whole with a result. If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office or lab, what would it be? Honestly, the pictures I have from over the years — family, friends, experiments. What music do you play most often in your lab or car? I was a teenager in the 1980's, so rock/pop from the '80s and '90s.