Engineering For The Unexpected

January 29, 2003

Arthur Nead

Associate professor Laura J. Steinberg of the civil and environmental engineering department has been appointed a member of the Science Advisory Board of the Environmental Protection Agency. Established by Congress in 1978, the board provides scientific reviews of proposed environmental regulations and standards.

"Typically, the EPA comes to the Science Advisory Board for guidance," says Steinberg, whose two-year term began in October. "The agency may be considering a particular problem and needs some scientific guidance on how to deal with it, what research needs to be done, or how to evaluate existing research."

Steinberg is on the SAB's Drinking Water Committee, which is assigned to provide guidance to the EPA's Office of Water, administrator of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Steinberg, who chairs the civil and environmental engineering department's graduate studies committee, has been at Tulane since 1995. She teaches and researches in several aspects of environmental engineering including water quality management, environmental statistics, natural hazards and diffusion of environmental technology.

"Traditionally, environmental engineering meant the design of water and waste water treatment systems," says Steinberg.

But the scope of environmental engineering has considerably broadened since the 1970s due to laws and regulations resulting from growing environmental concerns. An increasingly important function of environmental engineering is to asssess the impact of human activities such as industry and agriculture on the environment. To make the kinds of environmental impact assessments generated by the EPA, engineers use mathematical models to predict such things as future concentrations of contaminants in the environment and future exposure rates.

When an engineer makes a predictive model, many unknown factors create uncertainty for the accuracy of its predictions. "Statistical analyses can be used to help evaluate the amount of uncertainty and to quantify how this affects the prediction," says Steinberg.

She also is interested in studying natural hazards and their impact on infrastructure. She recently completed a study funded by the National Science Foundation that postulated cases of toxic chemical releases triggered by natural disasters.

"What I am interested in is how to respond to these releases in the midst of a natural disaster, and how to prevent them from occurring," says Steinberg.

To obtain data, Steinberg travels to disaster sites throughout the country and sometimes farther afield. In 2000 and 2001, Steinberg traveled to Turkey to gather information after a massive earthquake. The EPA appointment isn't the first time the government has tapped Steinberg's engineering expertise. After the Sept. 11 tragedy, she was contacted by government agencies concerned about the potential effects of terrorist acts.
"The government believes that natural-hazards researchers have some expertise in this area, because these are both types of unexpected events," says Steinberg. "So I was an invited participant at a meeting at the White House conference center last year on infrastructure vulnerability. My contribution was how critical infrastructure can be better engineered to meet the demands placed on it by unexpected events."

Steinberg also was a participant at a National Science Foundation meeting, "Preparing for the Unexpected," held last year next to the site of the World Trade Center.

Arthur Nead can be reached at

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000