Asked to describe her work, Dr. Lisa Tobber says “I study how buildings will behave in earthquakes and then develop solutions to make them behave better.” Her research on structural systems is making our cities safer, more resilient and more sustainable.
- Campus: Okanagan
Website: School Profile
Education: PhD in Structural Engineering (UBC); BASc in Civil Engineering (UBC)
Why did you decide to study engineering?
I was always good in problem-solving but had little idea of what engineering was all about. After high school I worked at a construction company, initially as a secretary and then in the accounting division. I loved talking to the engineers and kept offering input on their projects, which led them to ask me why I wasn’t planning to be an engineer and encouraging me to do so. After completing Chemistry 12 online, I was accepted into a one-year transfer program at Kwantlen, where I graduated at the top of my class and transferred to UBC for second year. I did an undergraduate research project with a professor in structural engineering that got me hooked on my current area of focus. I discovered I had an aptitude for engineering and research, along with a desire to solve really hard problems.
Tell us about your research.
"The short answer is that I study how buildings will behave in earthquakes and then develop solutions to make them behave better.”
As a structural engineer, I design the skeleton of a building so that it will stay up under the weight of the building and against the forces of wind and earthquakes. It’s extremely challenging, because unlike other kinds of research where you can test out your ideas on prototypes, we can’t test buildings in the same way and can only see our handiwork after there’s been a disaster. I’m also researching more sustainable types of concrete that have a lower environmental impact.
How do you do this research?
I lead the Advanced Structural Simulation and Experimental Testing (ASSET) Group. My research lab looks like a large industrial warehouse, with a big crane, strong floors and reaction walls.
“We basically take various elements of a building and exert forces on them until they fail. We then use the information we’ve gathered to develop computer models that simulate different building structures and natural disaster scenarios.”
It can take weeks to run some of these computer simulations to see what happens to major structural systems under really complicated loads.
Another challenging factor is that every building is unique – it’s not like you do one design and then roll it out for all buildings as you do in designing a Ford-150 truck, for example. Even if you did have the exact same design, each building is located in a unique environment and on specific soil, which will have an impact on its performance and needs to be taken into consideration.
Why is your research important?
“This research is important because it saves lives and creates buildings that are more resilient to climate change and natural disasters.”
The knowledge generated by structural engineering research is being integrated into building codes and reducing the number of building collapses and deaths after earthquakes.
However, there is definitely more that we could be doing, particularly in the area of resiliency and functionality after an earthquake. Buildings in Canada must be designed to stay intact after an earthquake, which doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be safe to live in. We saw after the Christchurch, New Zealand, earthquake that 60 per cent of buildings in the downtown district needed to be demolished because they weren’t safe to live in or work in. If there is a major earthquake here in BC, there could be hundreds of thousands of people who are suddenly homeless because it’s not safe for them to return to their mid- or high-rise building. (Read more about Dr. Tobber’s contributions in the article Why new research in concrete could save BC homes.)
What courses do you teach?
At the undergrad level, I teach a second-year civil engineering course on the theory of structures, as well as a fourth-year course on precast concrete structures.
How does your research influence your teaching?
As a student at UBC I was lucky to learn from the nation’s pre-eminent researchers in earthquake engineering. That gave me a very strong understanding of how buildings perform in earthquakes and a fantastic foundation for my work. Now a researcher myself, I discuss my work with my students and incorporate it in my classes. My students are certainly familiar with my dislike of various aspects of the building code and my attempts to change it.
There’s currently an emphasis on Indigenizing the curriculum at UBC, and I’m working on a research project looking at the intersections of Indigenous design, structural engineering and material engineering. I’ll be learning about these areas of overlap and integration, which I can then bring into in my classes and teach to my students based on my experience.
Indigenizing the Engineering Profession
Watch Dr. Lisa Tobber speak at UBC Engineering Open House
You mentioned an influential undergraduate research project. Do you have undergrads working in your lab?
Yes. Instead of a co-op term, students can work in my lab on a research project. They’ll typically work with a graduate student on testing, doing drawings or conducting literature reviews. This sees them working on interesting projects and learning cutting-edge technology.
ASSET Group website Research Work Experience
You’re chair of the Women in the School of Engineering Committee. Any reflections on women in engineering?
A lot of young women want to be engineers because they’d like to use their skills to make a difference in the world. Many focus on biomedical engineering, which is great, but I also think it’s important to highlight that all areas of engineering enable you to make a difference.
“If you can design a high-rise that is home to 400 people and stays up during an earthquake, you’ve saved a lot of lives. And if you can design a building that stays up during a disaster and that is still safe to live in afterwards, you’ve prevented 400 people from being without a home during a lengthy rebuilding process.”
Anything else you want to share?
Engineering is a great four-year professional degree. Even if you are considering other professions – like teaching, medicine, architecture, law or virtually anything else that requires additional schooling beyond undergrad – why not get an engineering degree first? You’ll become really good at solving problems, which is a skill you can use in any field. I know some people who did engineering followed by a law degree and are now in high demand in patent, technology and construction law. A strong applied science background can also set you up for success in business, management and politics. Our province’s Minister of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness is an alumna of UBC Civil Engineering.