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September 11, 2019

Answering challenges: Likos leads civil and environmental engineering to prepare for rapid changes

Written By: Alex Holloway

Aging infrastructure. Climate change. Clean water. Natural hazards. These are a few of the big challenges facing civil and environmental engineers throughout the world, and William Likos says the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering will lead the way in training future generations to meet the task.

 William Likos
William Likos

Likos, the Gary Wendt Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UW-Madison and the 15th chair of the department, is leading it into an exciting time of change in the civil engineering field. He’s following in the footsteps of former department chair David Noyce, who is now the college’s executive associate dean.

“Civil engineering touches just about everything we interface with in our daily lives—roads, bridges, buildings, water systems, transportation systems—and a lot of that infrastructure was built in the ‘50s and is now reaching the end of its design life,” Likos says. “We’re coming up with ways to rehabilitate existing infrastructure while at the same time innovating entirely new ways to do things.”

As the field evolves, Likos says the department is developing solutions that could bring paradigm shifts—for example, in preparing for new technologies such as smart transportation systems (which use some form of automated vehicle), and how to design infrastructure such as roads and bridges to accommodate them.

Likos joined the UW-Madison faculty in 2012, and has served as the director the Geological Engineering Program, which is housed in the department. He earned his BS and MS in civil and environmental engineering from Tulane University.

After finishing those degrees, he worked for the U.S. Geological Survey’s Landslides Hazards Program in Golden, Colorado. The program shared a laboratory with the Colorado School of Mines, where Likos earned his PhD in Engineering Systems in 2000.

Likos’ research has focused on understanding soil and how it interfaces with the atmosphere, and how conditions such as rain or drought can lead to changes in soil engineering properties and behavior. He’s conducted extensive research on clay and what causes it to shift, change volume, and damage buildings, and on landslides. Those types of problems, Likos says, are clear examples of how atmospheric and soil interactions can create issues with huge consequences. According to the USGS, landslides kill 25 to 50 people per year on average in the United States, and can cause billions of dollars in damage.

“This is a pretty costly hazard, so we’re very interested in understanding that process—the soil conditions and environmental conditions that would lead to a potential landslide,” Likos says.

Likos says the department is on strong footing to continue to lead and innovate, and new faculty hires made in recent years have helped inject an enthusiasm and energy as the department continues to grow.

“We’re going to continue to make an impact, both in Wisconsin and around the world,” Likos says. “The things we’re doing answer grand challenges—things like energy and food and water. These are the things that civil engineers work on.”