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June 22, 2017

William Likos: Seeing soil as spectacular

Written By: Sam Million-Weaver

Dirt is anything but dull for William Likos, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Geological Engineering Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Likos first became fascinated by soil during his undergraduate studies when he realized that, distinct from construction materials like steel and concrete, the complex characteristics of an individual patch of dirt cannot simply be looked up in the appendix of an engineering textbook. Since then, Likos’ research has focused on understanding processes near the soil surface that affect its mechanical and hydraulic properties.

Likos’ work has implications for predicting natural disasters such as landslides, or unnatural disasters such as contamination seeping through the ground–which are becoming increasingly important questions as the nation’s infrastructure ages.

Engineers can and should contribute to policy decisions, says Likos. “Investments need to be made, but the important question becomes how to make these investments with the right amount of foresight as the transportation, energy, and communication landscapes and new technologies continue to evolve.”

Recently, the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering awarded Likos the Gary Wendt Professorship. Established by alumnus Gary Wendt, the professorship honors a faculty member who encompasses UW-Madison’s deep commitment to high quality instruction and innovative research.

Likos looks forward to maintaining a balanced research agenda that includes both basic and applied science. The flexibility that accompanies a named professorship will allow Likos to pursue practical research, along with “high-risk/high-reward” endeavors.

Inspiration for longshot research projects may strike Likos when he least expects it—sometimes even in the shower. And his track record, which includes two Norman Medals from the American Society of Civil Engineers—the organization’s oldest and highest recognition for a research publication—indicates that those ideas often pay off.

Likos’ favorite thing about UW-Madison is the tremendous sense of pride displayed by the faculty and students throughout the institution.