William D. Lawson
Associate Professor Department of Civil, Environmental and Construction Engineering
Whitacre College of Engineering
Learn more about Integrated Scholar William D. Lawson, in this question-and-answer session.
What are your research objectives and interests?
My research and creative activities encompass both technical and interdisciplinary domains. Technical research has focused on geotechnical engineering for transportation applications, primarily in the areas of soil/structure interaction, roadway maintenance, unsaturated/expansive soils, and foundations. Interdisciplinary research has focused on engineering education, engineering ethics, engineering professionalism, assessment, and the efficacy of distance learning methods. I have also published on geotechnical engineering history and am actively interested in topics such as engineering judgment, risk, and decision making.
How do you feel your research impacts the globe?
While I normally do not express the broader impacts of my research in such terms, it seems fair to say that some of my research does impact the globe to various degrees. For example, one of the interdisciplinary projects for which I served as principal investigator, sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF), was a study exploring ethics instruction for international graduate students in engineering. This project happened to coincide with an at the time new NSF initiative to promote responsible conduct of research for all NSF-sponsored projects. As such, that study directly impacted both domestic and international graduate students around the globe in a significant aspect of their professional education.
More recently, my research team and I are working on a technical study having to do with assessing the safe load capacity of concrete culvert structures in Texas. A good way to think about this is that we are determining what size truck can safely cross the thousands of bridge-class culverts in the Texas transportation system. This project directly relates to the safety, health and welfare of all persons who use the Texas transportation network and is impacting another part of the globe in a positive way.
What types of service projects have you been involved with?
My service activities include membership in various technical and professional societies, membership on technical committees at the national, state and local levels, service on university, college and department-level committees at Texas Tech University, and community service. One of my most enjoyable service projects was a six-year term on the National Society of Professional Engineers Board of Ethical Review. With six other senior engineers from across the United States, we wrote opinions – from an educational perspective – providing guidance to engineers on how to address ethical situations that arise in industry, academia and private practice. Other service activities have involved international travel which is also highly interesting and rewarding. With colleagues I co-taught a two-week summer course entitled Public Works in Brazi in which undergraduate students from Texas Tech University and the University of Missouri visited major cities throughout Brazil from the Amazon River in Belem in the north to Sao Paulo, largest city in the southern hemisphere, in the south. I sponsored an international exchange student from Croatia, and have had opportunities to travel to Germany, New Zealand and Panama as part of my research and educational activities.
What are you currently working on?
The various research teams on which I serve are working on a diverse body of technical and interdisciplinary subjects totaling eight different research projects during the past year. Our major technical project is the $1.1 million Texas culvert load rating study, sponsored by the Texas Department of Transportation. In one of our interdisciplinary projects, we are helping develop and implement a leadership training program for area roadway maintenance professionals. In another technical study, we are performing field tests to compare the effectiveness of different snow and ice control chemicals, the goal being to inform statewide policy on the selection and use of these chemicals for winter weather roadway maintenance. A somewhat related study is exploring the impact of deicing salts on corrosion rates for steel reinforcement, and another study prepared a design manual to address geotechnical engineering challenges in very cold regions. We recently completed a study which used reliability theory to evaluate Texas' deep foundation design method which is used for all bridge foundations in Texas. In another study we evaluated the relationship between cost and quality for thin seals on pavement surfaces. Finally, we have an ongoing contract to provide continuing education training in geotechnical engineering for transportation professionals in Texas.
Where do you find your inspiration?
Much can be said about this. For the purposes of this interview, I will simply say that I truly enjoy learning. When I first came to University from engineering consulting – and this was a major career change for me – had you asked what I was most looking forward to at that time, without hesitation I would have said teaching. However, during the process of completing my doctoral research and in subsequent research endeavors I have discovered that, for me, a love of learning is the more fundamental motivation. I view teaching, research and service as being expressions of learning, so in each area I seem to always focus on that. And happily, being a faculty member provides an excellent vocation through which I am able to pursue this very basic personal desire.
What advice do you have for new faculty members about balancing the components of Integrated Scholarship—teaching, research, and service—in their careers?
Work is one necessary part of the work-life balance, and living out our considered priorities – faith, family, friends, health, work, play, community, etc. – is one of life's daily challenges. So it is of first importance that we get this right. Quite frankly I do not think of myself as being very good about being balanced when it comes to my career. I work very hard, I put in long hours, and I seldom let up. Perhaps I am not unlike the inventor Thomas Edison who attributed his success to "one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration." Besides hard work, a few other things come to mind. One is that while I agree each aspect of the tri-partite academic ideal of teaching, research and service is equally important, the three are not equal in weight. As mentioned earlier, I view all these as expressions of learning, and it is a true statement that my richest learning experiences often accompany research. This is not to say that disciplined teaching and strategic service activities cannot also yield quality learning, but success can be harder to achieve in those areas. Another observation – one I am learning more and more – is that publishing deserves priority. It is natural to devote our time to those things we must do and that have deadlines – tasks such as teaching our classes, committee assignments, and writing research reports. But for me, perhaps the most rewarding, and fun, part of my job is when my research team and I get together after a project, and we take time to reflect on and sift through what we have learned, and then we put those contributions down on paper. That is cool. But doing this does not come naturally – we have to invest time in it. A final observation is that working on research teams is essential, for a team can achieve collectively what an individual cannot do by him/herself. So much can be learned from our colleagues, and we should not try to do all our work solo.
I grew up on a ranch in Central Texas, my brothers and I spending our childhood working with my father in our family business of water well drilling. For my first six years of education I attended a two-room country school, Moffat Elementary. A voracious reader, by third grade I had read an entire series of biographies of famous Americans. The one that influenced me most was that of George Washington Goethals, chief engineer for the Panama Canal. The story of digging the Canal, the challenge to rid the Canal zone of yellow fever and malaria, and Colonel Goethels' ingenuity in designing the canal's locks made a deep impression on me. At this point, I knew that when I grew up, I would be an engineer.
I attended Belton High School, Belton, Texas, graduating with honors in 1978. I enrolled in the civil engineering program at Texas A&M University and earned my Bachelor's degree in a fairly unremarkable manner, the first person in my immediate family to graduate from college. I continued my engineering studies at Texas A&M, earning a Master of Science degree in 1984. During those semesters I was not doing research, I held a teaching assistantship. It was from this experience I discovered I thoroughly enjoyed teaching and seemed to have a knack for it.
Upon graduation with my master's degree, I began my professional career as a consulting geotechnical engineer in private practice, working on engineering projects throughout north, central and west Texas. In 1990, while working full-time, I began pursuing a graduate theology degree at Dallas Theological Seminary, believing I would enter vocational ministry. In 1993, I joined the Dallas office of Law Engineering and Environmental Services, Inc. (now Amec Foster Wheeler), a global engineering design firm, where I served as principal engineer and national client manager. In these roles I provided project management and technical oversight for geotechnical, materials, transportation, environmental, and facilities projects nationwide. During this time, and in particular owing to the teams of young engineers I led throughout the country, I began to reflect on professional, ethical, and other practice management challenges that consulting engineers daily encounter in the marketplace.
In 1998, I joined Texas Tech University, leaving private practice to serve as the Deputy Director of the Murdough Center for Engineering Professionalism and the National Institute for Engineering Ethics. Upon re-entering academe, I was motivated to formally explore professional and ethical issues in my doctoral program. Grounded in the geotechnical discipline of civil engineering, my doctoral research branched out into an interdisciplinary study of theology, philosophy, sociology, higher education and business vis-à-vis questions of engineering ethics and professionalism. I selected as my dissertation topic the role of trust and trustworthiness in professional-client relationships.
In 2006, following a national search, I was invited to join the faculty of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering where I now serve as an Associate Professor in the geotechnical area and as a member of the Graduate faculty. Joining the Civil Engineering faculty has provided an opportunity to continue my interdisciplinary research, and also to focus more directly on technical research topics in the geotechnical and transportation disciplines.