Engineering Nebraska, Summer07
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Paving the Road to Success

Grenville Yuill, Director of Duham School

Talk about a vote of confidence.

College of Engineering Dean David Allen said he believes that in the near future, his protégé Yong-Rak Kim could be the world’s No. 1 researcher in predicting the lifespan of asphalt pavement.

Kim, an assistant professor of civil engineering, said he hoped winning a Faculty Early Career Development Award from the National Science Foundation would put that goal within reach.

“I’m very excited,” he said. “A CAREER award can be a solid foundation on which to build your own research program.”

CAREER is one of NSF’s most prestigious and competitive grant programs. The awards are given to junior faculty who most effectively integrate research and education within the context of the mission of their organization.

Kim will use his $402,000 grant to develop models to predict what mechanical processes cause a roadway to crack and break down over time. His findings may help engineers develop more durable materials for roadways and bridges.

A key moment in Kim’s young career was realizing he would be a better civil engineer if he knew more about engineering mechanics. Civil engineers learn the basics of mechanics, Kim said, but someone who wants to study the characterization of geomaterials and modeling needs a higher level of understanding. Therefore, he decided to take mechanical-based courses in addition to civil engineering during his doctoral program at Texas A&M University.

“Learning [mechanics] was painful because it’s difficult to understand what it’s about, but it has really paid off,” he said.

Three of Kim’s mechanics courses were taught by Allen, then a professor in A&M’s aerospace engineering department. Kim said he discovered his interest in materials modeling partly because of what he learned from Allen.

“I really respect Dr. Allen because he gave me new insights into materials modeling,” he said.

Allen was on Kim’s thesis committee along with his adviser Professor Dallas Little. The thesis was a groundbreaking piece of research on asphaltic pavement materials, Allen said.

“I was tremendously impressed with him as a student, or I never would have agreed to work with him,” he said.

Kim used his newfound knowledge to prepare him for a research fellowship with the Federal Highway Administration. He worked with agency researchers to develop a dynamic mechanical analysis-testing method to study fatigue behaviors in asphalt mixtures. The method allows engineers to determine what mechanical processes cause a roadway to crack and break down over time and how to prevent roadway fatigue. The Association of Asphalt Paving Technologies awarded Kim the Best Paper Award in 2006 for his contribution to the project.

By the time Kim graduated in 2003, Allen was engineering dean at UNL. Certain that Kim’s skills would be an asset to the college, Allen recruited him to Nebraska for post-doctoral work. Kim’s personality also was a factor, Allen said.

“He’s a likeable person, easy to get along with,” he said.

Kim was a research associate for two years and was promoted to assistant professor in 2005.

“To be honest, I didn’t know much about UNL, but I knew it had a lot of potential,” Kim said. “Dr. Allen gave me a good impression of the university.”

Kim said when he was looking for a job, he wanted to choose a university where he could build a research area instead of coming into an established program. UNL was the perfect fit for that requirement, he said.

“It’s hard but satisfying because you create it, develop the foundation and make it happen,” Kim said.

Civil Engineering Department Chair Mohammed Dahab said the department is proud of Kim’s accomplishments.

“Dr. Kim’s CAREER project is well-integrated within the short-term and long-term research and education plan of the civil engineering department,” Dahab said.

In addition to his CAREER grant, Kim has been the principal investigator of nine other grants totaling $1.78 million while at UNL. His funding agencies are NSF, Federal Highway Administration, Nebraska Department of Roads, Texas A&M Research Foundation and Western Research Institute. In April, he also received a Faculty Research and Creative Activity Award from the engineering college.

“So many good things have happened at once that I’m starting to get scared. There is nowhere to go but downward,” he joked.

—Ashley Washburn