This week, we sat down for a chat with Eva Lantsoght who is a professor of structural engineering at Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador and is a tenured assistant professor at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. Her research is focused on the analysis and design of concrete structures, field testing of structures, and assessment of existing bridges. Finally, she is also the editor and main author of the blog PhD Talk, and the author of The A-Z of the PhD Trajectory – A Practical Guide for a Successful Journey. We had an awesome chat with Eva and loved hearing about her work! Read on for more.
Thinking way back, what inspired you to want to pursue civil engineering?
I knew I wanted to become an engineer at a very young age. As a kid, I was fascinated by space and astronauts. In 1992, Dirk Frimout, an engineer, was the first Belgian in space. I was also really bored in school as a kid, and when I asked my parents what the most challenging studies are, they told me “civil engineering” (please note that in Belgium we use “civil” engineering for all engineering disciplines that are not military engineering). I liked bridges, satellites, and rockets growing up, and decided to go for civil engineering (called construction engineering in Belgium) after the first 2 years of engineering school.
Did you always have the end goal of being a professor in mind? What is your favorite thing about teaching?
Not at all! My original ambition was to work for the precast concrete company in my hometown. When I was in the 4th year (of 5 years) of engineering in Brussels, they called me and a few other students for a meeting to encourage us to apply for the Belgian American Educational Foundation and Fulbright Scholarships. I always wanted to go abroad for one year after my studies (but originally somewhere else in Europe), so I thought I’d give it a try. I got the scholarship, and then my professors at Georgia Tech encouraged me to go do a PhD – but elsewhere, because funding options were limited in 2008 (the financial crisis). So I wrote an email to a famous professor in Delft to see if he had an opening, and I haven’t left research and academia since then. I guess you can say I’ve always just done what I like and ended up as a professor.
My favorite thing about teaching is working one on one with students on their theses. Witnessing how they go from reproducing my thoughts and work to coming up with their own ideas and research is the most gratifying part of my work. I enjoy working with BSc students very much, as it gives me the opportunity to lay the foundation for their future careers. When a former BSc student of mine gets into a MSc program outside of Ecuador, I always feel very proud of their achievements.
What is your favorite project you have worked on so far?
I’ve enjoyed pretty much all research projects that I’ve worked on so far. However, in terms of complexity and breadth, the largest project I have worked on was my PhD research. I spent 2.5 years testing big concrete slabs (half-scale bridges) in the lab. Since then, I haven’t had the chance to do such a large series of tests.
What is your favorite part of the research process? What is most difficult for you?
I still really like the actual number crunching part of the research process: calculating, modeling, analyzing etc. But, with more and more responsibilities, students to supervise, and admin tasks, it is difficult to find blocks of time to do this. So, I would say the most difficult part of the research process right now is actually finding time to do my own research. In the past, the most difficult part has been to derive theoretical approaches, since it can be frustrating when ideas don’t work and you need to start from scratch. On the other hand, once I find something that actually works, it’s very satisfying.
You also published a book of advice to Ph.D. students. Why was this project important to you?
I read a number of books for Ph.D. students during my own Ph.D., but had the impression that most books were written from the perspective of the social sciences and humanities. Since there are particular challenges to a Ph.D. in STEM, I wanted to share my view and experience in the book. I also wanted to address issues that non-native English speakers face in their research, as we are mostly evaluated based on our speaking and writing skills. I hope the book has helped and will help many students.
What is one of your favorite pieces of advice that you share?
Most of my advice is related to planning, such as starting early when you know you will need to deliver a report or conference paper. The other very important element that I focus on is self-care, proper nutrition, sleep, and exercise. You need to take good care of yourself if you want to do good work.
Your work has brought you across the globe with school in Belgium, and positions in other nations like the Netherlands and Ecuador. What is the best thing about getting to work in so many unique nations? Were there any unforeseen challenges?
Every country and institution has its particularities, and you always learn new perspectives when going to work somewhere else. I think being exposed to different schools of thought has helped me in analyzing my research from different perspectives. The challenges are always the practical parts: getting all the paperwork done when you move to another country, while getting started in a new position can be a lot to deal with. This also often means that the first paycheck will come with a delay (as you need to have all your paperwork in order before your employer can process everything). Add in the cost of moving, buying new things, etc. and you can understand that the first month(s) can be really tight.
What direction do you see for the future of your discipline? What do you hope to accomplish next?
The main challenge of the construction industry right now is achieving climate-neutrality and circularity. The embedded carbon of concrete construction is something that requires immediate reduction. My focus has been on increasing the service life of bridges, so that we don’t have to build too many new ones, but I would like to expand the scope of my research and include recommendations for the construction industry in Ecuador to become more sustainable.
A big thank you to Eva for taking the time to talk with us and for sharing such insightful answers! If you want to stay in touch with her you can follow her on Twitter, @evalantsoght.
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Note: Some responses have been edited for length and/or clarity.