Negar Shams

“When people hear about engineering, they think it’s all about math, physics and solving problems. And it is. But you can be creative, too. Designing buildings is similar to art. Different people have different observations, and with creativity, you can come up with new solutions.”

Negar Shams designs buildings, yet she’s always thinking outside the box. She sees civil engineering as an art, and for her undergraduate degree at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, she’s applying her creative mind to develop a new bracing system for buildings.

Having lived all over the world, she has witnessed first-hand the devastation earthquakes can have on families, cities and the environment. Now, the fourth-year civil engineering student is using her unique perspective to design more earthquake-resilient buildings.

Negar Shams

Each year, an average of 3.5 million people worldwide are affected by earthquakes

Negar Shams

Of the 3,000 earthquakes reported in British Columbia each year, most are too small to be felt. Those strong enough to cause structural damage are expected to occur about once a decade

Negar Shams

A recent study from the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC) estimated that a megathrust earthquake off the coast of B.C. would cost the economy $75 billion

How is your research helping make buildings more earthquake-resilient?

I’m focused on structural and earthquake engineering. Buildings are supported by columns and beams, which are designed to withstand heavy loads. When an earthquake occurs, these columns and beams get damaged and the whole building can fall down. Since it’s difficult to predict the magnitude of an earthquake or when one will happen, it’s critical for engineers to develop different solutions to prevent as much damage as possible.

I’m working on a research project supervised by Dr. Shahria Alam in the Applied Laboratory for Advanced Materials and Structures (ALAMS). We’ve developed an innovative bracing system for buildings that helps to prevent damage. It works on tension and compression to carry the lateral loads. We’re using a new design and materi­al that’s never been used before in bracing systems. This device has a self-centring system, so if there’s an earthquake, the building will retain its original shape. It minimizes the cost of production and the weight of the structure. 

What motivates you to study structural and earthquake engineering?

Both of my parents are engineers, and I have always looked up to them for their work in making people’s lives easier and safer. I also experienced an earthquake as a child in Tehran. It was terrifying. I’ve seen the effects that earthquakes can have on people’s lives. The ultimate goal is to help prevent injury and death. You can’t control everything, but there’s always something you can do.

How does creativity factor into civil engineering?

I’ve always been interested in structural engineering because I like designing things. I also paint. When you paint, you come up with an idea, design it and present it to other people, which is similar in building design.

I’m interested in different building designs, shapes and structures. I’ve travelled widely and lived in Malaysia, Norway and Iran. I’ve seen some creative buildings, like the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab Jumeirah in Dubai and the Golestan Palace in Tehran.

The people who designed these buildings had different perspectives and visions. It’s inspiring to see how a new idea can work in real life and makes people’s lives safer. It inspires me to be innovative. That’s why it feels like art.

Why did you choose to do your undergraduate degree at UBC?

UBC has a very good research reputation and is one of the best universities in Canada. There are a lot of opportunities here, and I wanted the chance to study in this vibrant, academic community.

I’ve found the School of Engineering really supports its students. The professors are very accessible. You can tell them what topics you’re interested in and they’ll help you learn more about them. The teaching assistants and advisors are also dedicated to helping students reach their goals. Everyone has a different cultural background; it’s really diverse, so there are lots of opportunities to learn.

What would you tell a potential student who is considering a career in engineering?

Never let stereotypes intimidate you, especially in historically male-dominated fields like engineering. A lot of people, especially women, underestimate their skills and think engineering is too difficult. When you face barriers, you can either give up or you can put in the effort to be successful. Engineering is a hard program, and it takes dedication and effort to be successful, but if you work hard enough, you can do it.

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