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Civil engineering professor elected to National Academy of Engineering

Dr. Roy E. Olson, the L.P. Gilvin Centennial Professor Emeritus in Civil Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin, has been elected to the National Academy of Engineering.

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AUSTIN, Texas—Dr. Roy E. Olson, the L.P. Gilvin Centennial Professor Emeritus in Civil Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin, has been elected to the National Academy of Engineering.

A pioneering geotechnical engineer who joined the faculty in 1970, he was cited “for furthering our understanding of the properties of clays and for contributions to geotechnical engineering design.” Membership in the National Academy of Engineering is considered one of the highest honors awarded an engineer.

Dr. Olson’s election brings the College of Engineering’s total faculty members in the academy to 41. Only three of more than 300 U.S. engineering schools—Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley—have more members.

Geotechnical engineers study the properties of soil and rock that support and affect the behavior of structures, pavements and underground facilities. During his 45-year career, Dr. Olson devised engineering solutions to address soil compression, or “settling”, soil expansion, soil’s permeability to water or percolation and soil’s strength to resist shearing forces. His landmark work in foundation engineering—for structures ranging from small, comparatively lightweight houses in the expansive soils of central Texas to giant offshore oil rigs—made him a world-recognized authority in that field.

“His classic soils research has enabled us to understand soil behavior under stresses of construction and climate, while his foundation design offers solutions to the challenges nature’s oceans present,” said Dr. Ben G. Streetman, dean of the College of Engineering. “From the Texas family looking for a home site to the state planning a bridge or the petroleum industry proposing to construct a deep-water drilling rig offshore—everyone profits from his contributions over a long, distinguished career.”

Dr. Olson received his bachelor’s (1953) and master’s (1955) degrees in civil engineering from the University of Minnesota, followed by a doctor’s degree in 1960 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He was on the University of Illinois engineering faculty between 1960 and 1970.

During his early career, he used the tools of chemistry and geology to conduct extensive laboratory studies on a wide range of soil and rock materials, investigations that set the stage for many later advances in geotechnical engineering. Turning his attention to the analysis of experimentally gained data, he developed computer resources to predict the behavior of various soil types under different kinds of loading, notably, highway embankments and their associated retaining walls, in deep soft clays. Today, he principally concentrates on the applied aspects of foundation engineering, with a particular focus on structures in ocean waters 6,000 feet deep or more. Projects involving both piles (long, slender hollow steel columns driven into the sea floor) and suction caissons (steel tubes installed in deep-ocean soils using suction) as foundations in the marine environment are among his current projects.

Dr. Olson’s far-reaching contributions to geotechnical engineering have earned him the field’s highest plaudits. He is a past recipient of the Norman Medal—the American Society of Civil Engineers’ highest honor for an original technical paper—and has also received that organization’s Walter Huber Research Prize and Croes Medal. He’s a two-time recipient of the American Society for Testing and Materials’ C.A. Hogentogler Award for a paper of outstanding merit on soil and rock.

His research has been funded through the years by such government entities as the National Science Foundation, the federal Mineral Management Service, which licenses all offshore structures, the California Department of Transportation and the Texas Department of Transportation, as well as several petroleum companies. Clients as diverse as Pennsylvania Central Railroad, State Farm Insurance, the Trammell Crow Company, Bechtel and the U.S. Department of Justice have engaged his services as a consultant.

For more information contact: Becky Rische, College of Engineering, 512-471-7272.