With global sea surface temperature increasing 0.13 degrees Fahrenheit per decade, studies show that our planet will likely experience more frequent and intense natural disasters such as more Category 5 hurricanes, severe droughts, and widespread flooding.

For two students who are about to graduate from Virginia Tech’s disaster resilience and risk management (DRRMVT) graduate program, these disasters have already hit close to home and inspired them to take a stand and study how these events can be avoided - and how we can be better prepared for them.

“This program brings students and advisors from many departments across the Blacksburg and Northern Virginia Virginia Tech campuses together to build interdisciplinary capacity for better understanding disasters, mitigating them, building back better, and even preventing them, if possible,” said Robert Weiss, director of the DRRMVT program and the Center for Coastal Studies and a professor of natural hazards in the Department of Geosciences at Virginia Tech.

“Our education program enhances education in home departments by providing experiential learning and how individual the experience in the realm of interdisciplinary capacity building for each student really is.”

A native of Ecuador, Luis Zambrano-Cruzatty is a student in the Charles Edward Via Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Since 2016, he has been working with Assistant Professor Alba Yerro-Colom to simulate events that involve large deformation of geo-mass, like avalanches and landslides, on the computer.

Jun-Whan Lee, another student in the Charles Edward Via Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, was a Virginia Tech Charles Via Ph.D. Fellow 2017-20, a NSF National Research Traineeship Fellow 2018-19, Virginia Tech New Horizon Graduate Scholar 2019-21, and a Virginia SeaGrant Graduate Research fellow 2019-21. 

Lee has been working with Professor Jennifer Irish to develop computer models based on machine-learning techniques to rapidly and accurately predict tsunamis and storm surges in order to support forecasting and hazard assessment.

A headshot of Luis Zambrano-Cruzatty, a student in The Charles Edward Via, Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, wearing glasses and a bright pink shirt.
Luis Zambrano-Cruzatty, a student in the Charles Edward Via Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, simulates large deformations of geo-mass events on the computer. Photo courtesy of Luis Zambrano-Cruzatty.
Jun-Whan Lee, another student in The Charles Edward Via, Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, has been developing computer models to rapidly and accurately predict tsunamis and storm surges.
Jun-Whan Lee, another student in the Charles Edward Via Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, has been developing computer models to rapidly and accurately predict tsunamis and storm surges. Photo courtesy of Jun-Whan Lee.

DRRMVT is an Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Program in the Center for Coastal Studies, which is housed in the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. The program is designed to train business analysts, educators, engineers, scientists, and urban planners to help better prepare for, respond to, and recover from the devastating natural disasters that now regularly ravage communities and ecosystems across the globe. 

In 2016, Zambrano-Cruzatty was in his hometown of Portoviejo, Ecuador, when the massive 7.8 earthquake struck the coast of his country. Portoviejo was destroyed and of the 700 people who perished, Zambrano-Cruzatty lost many who were close to him.

Four years later, he attended the International Conference on Coastal Engineering 2020, where he saw a brochure for the DRRMVT program. On the front page was an engineer surrounded by the remnants of a structure, presumably, in the wake of a natural disaster.

“When I saw that picture on the brochure, I saw myself," said Zambrano-Cruzatty. “I saw myself standing among the rubble. I knew that the DRRM program was something that I wanted to be a part of. I think that I was a perfect fit for it.”

Lee was a senior majoring in civil and environmental engineering at Hanyang University in Korea when the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami unexpectedly hit Japan and reverberated, quite literally, around the world.

“That event made me realize that we don't understand natural disasters that well,” said Lee.

In search of some answers, Lee entered a master's program at Hanyang University and then joined the National Institute of Meteorological Sciences as a tsunami researcher in 2014.

“When I was working at the institute, I teamed up with people from different majors, and I learned the importance of interdisciplinary research. So, when I heard about the opportunity to join the DRRMVT program, I was sure that this program would be the optimal environment to expand my research interests,” said Lee.

The program brings together faculty and students in civil and environmental engineering, urban affairs and planning, public and international affairs, geosciences, and other disciplines to develop interdisciplinary modes of thinking and problem solving, which take research beyond outdated approaches based on the perspective of a single discipline. 

Both Zambrano-Cruzatty and Lee felt that the interdisciplinary nature of the program was challenging, but it helped them to solve issues from different angles and build better connections with their colleagues.

“We have different views, but we are solving the same problem,” said Zambrano-Cruzatty. “When you work across disciplines, you learn that there are more things that you can do to solve that particular problem. That’s the spirit of the program. You come here, you learn new things, you get to talk to people who manage emergency response.”

Looking further down the road, Lee added that the program helped to better prepare him for his future career.

“The program opened my eyes to the world of transdisciplinary research and it has inspired me to step out of my comfort zone and to expand my research horizon,” said Lee. “I'm sure this will help me with my future career because the ability to conduct interdisciplinary research is getting more and more attention these days.”

DRRMVT students also get the opportunity to engage in hands-on work with researchers, community members, and government agencies to develop proactive solutions grounded in the needs of local communities. Zambrano-Cruzatty was especially surprised by the in-depth approach to community engagement.

“When I started, I had certain expectations about what I would learn, but I ended up learning more than I thought,” said Zambrano-Cruzatty. “For instance, the bulk of the program emphasizes collaboration and focuses on engaging with the community. I learned a lot of methods and techniques to engage with the public and convey information to them.”

Lee also had a unique takeaway from the program. 

“Thanks to this program, I was able to engage with many colleagues from various majors, who eventually became my best friends,” said Lee. “That is a very unique opportunity as a graduate student. I am sure we will keep in touch as collaborators and best friends, no matter where we go or what we do in the future.”

After graduation, Lee will be working at the Center for Coastal Studies at Virginia Tech as a postdoctoral scholar with Jennifer Irish and Robert Weiss.

Zambrano-Cruzatty is currently writing his thesis, which he will submit in June. He hopes to take his research to the next level, by exploring the use of these design methods in the industry or in academia.

“The ultimate goal would be to make my research more available for the industry sector and the community,” said Zambrano-Cruzatty. “I think that we can achieve that through academia. We can transfer the information rapidly through teaching and research and expand further from there.

- Written by Kendall Daniels

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