Semiha Ergan on Engineering’s Role in Everyday Life


Associate Professor, New York University

Dr. Semiha Ergan first fell in love with civil engineering as a sixth rader in the Republic of Turkey, on a field trip to see Anitkabir, the mausoleum of the country's the first president and founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The tomb, an imposing structure seated at the end of a long walkway, hypnotized her.

“I remember I thought to myself how much of a thought process goes into it to design and build such structures,” she says. “That was the first line of thought I could trace back to, that I could say I wanted to be involved in those processes.”

Today, Ergan – who received her PhD at Carnegie Mellon University – is a faculty member at NYU Tandon School of Engineering, Civil and Urban Engineering, and is the Associate Director for Education and Workforce Development Initiatives at C2SMART. There, she has been heavily involved in sponsored projects at the intersection of building informatics, data science, and sensing systems to solve problems related to design, construction, and operation of civil infrastructure systems. She also spearheads the Building Informatics and Visualizations Lab (biLAB).

“What excites me most about civil engineering is the plethora of opportunities to touch the lives of people, to improve their experience and quality of life, in a variety of ways,” Ergan explains. 

This is borne out in the projects that she is currently working on, including her current project with C2SMART, which attempts to increase the situational awareness of employees located at work zones that are less structured and mobile.

The issue with evaluating the effectiveness of any safety notification system is that these assessments require rigorous testing under various conditions that can actually put people at real risk of accidents or near misses. To avoid this, Ergan and her team developed virtual reality platforms which can micro-simulate traffic flows in real road networks. 

“A wide variety of risky scenarios can be generated in virtual worlds, and then used to better understand worker behaviors towards safety notifications,” Ergan says. “Through wearable sensors and realistic representations of work zones in virtual reality, we collect worker behavioral and physiological – heart rate – responses to 

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warnings issued under various realistic scenarios and various warning mechanisms.”

In other words: all of the rigorous testing, none of the risk for real-life injury. 

The ultimate goal is to find the sweet spot of when and how frequently send those notifications to workers so that workers are responsive to them and develop increased situational awareness while at work, thereby reducing risk of injury.

The most difficult aspect of her field, Ergan says, is resistance to change. Culture in organizations, or the comfort zone of people in the profession, are barriers on the way to improve and streamline the work processes with advanced approaches and emerging technologies. Data science, digital twinning, automation, and sensing offer enormous opportunity for growth in that area, but change is slow to come.

Still, Ergan says, “We have had baby steps in various areas, but also had large leaps in some others. So, we are progressing.”

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