Sam Gil MSCE '13: Finding the answers as a forensic engineer

Monday, October 21, 2013

Sam Gil, MSCE '13, always knew he wanted to be a civil engineer, but it wasn’t until the last semester of his CEE graduate program that he fine-tuned his career focus.

“I took a materials science and a forensics class that was taught by three professors - Dr. [Kimberly] Kurtis, Dr. [David] Scott and Dr. [Yang] Wang. Taking them together worked well because they were very related,” says the 24-year-old Forest Park native, who earned both his undergraduate and graduate civil engineering degrees at Georgia Tech. “Those classes gave me a new way to look at the field, and it’s pretty exciting.”

They also prepared him for his first professional position, as a staff engineer for TEC Services, a Lawrenceville-based firm that specializes in forensic engineering. Gil was hired full-time by the firm shortly after he finished a GT-sponsored co-op at the company and received his degree.

“If I hadn’t taken those classes and done that internship, I probably would have gone the more traditional route of doing new design,” said Gil. “This is a lot more interesting to me.”

Forensic engineers focus on the performance of materials, products, and structures, with an eye toward preventing structural failure and/or locating the cause of failures that have already occurred. They are frequently called in as third-party experts in legal disputes, but are just as likely to be called in before a problem has occurred, to review the work of another team of engineers.

Either way, it’s a position that requires not only solid engineering skills, but a cool demeanor.

“It’s not for everyone,” says Abram Duke, Gil’s mentor and boss at TEC Services. “You have to be willing to learn and re-learn your stuff. You are going in to review the work of another professional engineer -- someone who’s put his stamp on the work. You have to be willing to stick with your judgment, even if it brings a little heat.”

Gil nods in agreement with Duke. In his forensic engineering class, he learned a lot about the science, legalities, and engineering involved in assessing a structure’s strength. In his materials science class he learned how to fully anticipate the properties of different materials and admixtures. At TEC, he has seen how it all fits together.

“You can be dangerous if you just apply the equations and the codes. There’s more to it,” he said. “For instance, when we were looking at a parking structure a few weeks ago, I saw a crack in a beam, and my first thought was ‘that’s bad.’ I thought it was a shear crack. But Abram pointed out that the orientation of a crack will tell you a lot about whether it’s serious or not. In that case, it was a tensile crack, due to post tensioning, and it wasn’t that serious.”

Gil paused a second after saying this, then added:

“Then I remembered that that was something I had learned in Dr. Kahn’s Prestressed Concrete class, something that made a lot of sense.”

Just a few months into the job, Gil is excited by the possibilities. He is currently accumulating apprenticeship hours towards the three-year requirement for taking the professional engineer (PE) exam. He is also looking forward to attending more client meetings, and getting involved in the development of materials codes.

His boss welcomes the input:

“Having a Georgia Tech grad like Sam adds to our knowledge as a team,” Duke said. “He’s taken classes more recently with new technology. You always want to figure that in with experience when you are going out on a job.”

His former professor, Kurtis, has no doubts he'll succeed:

"Sam's a really hard worker, and a genuinely good person. He'll make a great forensic engineer."