Spring 2024 Letter from the Director

Greetings from ESSIE, 

We have completed another great spring semester in Gainesville. I’m so proud of the accomplishments of our students, faculty, alumni, centers and institutes as we continue to strive toward making a better environment for us all.  

Kirk Hatfield, ESSIE Director Headshot
Kirk Hatfield is the Director of the Engineering School of Sustainable Infrastructure & Environment at the University of Florida

To begin, we are reshaping the future of construction engineering with $2.5 million in strategic funding from the office of UF President Ben Sasse. This initiative is led by Eric Du, Ph.D., ESSIE civil engineering professor, and faculty from the UF College of Design, Construction and Planning. The team plans to create a first-of-its-kind undergraduate degree program in industrialized construction engineering that focuses on environmental stewardship to use digital design, AI, and robotic automation to improve productivity, safety, and quality in residential and commercial construction.  

Speaking of the use of AI, Xilei Zhao, Ph.D., a civil engineering assistant professor, received a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award to build theory-informed, high-accuracy AI-based behavioral models to improve emergency response during climate disasters such as hurricanes and wildfires. Her goal for the five-year project is twofold: first, improving emergency response training, and then, enhancing education around the use of AI.   

Beyond individual projects, our department’s centers and institutes play a pivotal role in shaping interdisciplinary collaborations and driving innovation. The Center for Coastal Solutions (CCS) recently published research in Nature that shows sea otters living in a California estuary have slowed down erosion by 69%. It’s a lesson in how nature, when given a chance, can be the best conservationist. CCS Director Christine Angelini, Ph.D., and her team found that otters’ diet for plant-eating marsh crabs elevated nutrients in creekbanks and marsh edges. The University of Florida Transportation Institute (UFTI) embarked on a transformative endeavor with the grand opening of the I-STREET™ Living Lab. The 4,300-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility has a student village workspace and a traffic monitoring area to improve transportation research. This is a collaborative initiative among UFTI, the Florida Department of Transportation, the City of Gainesville and I-STREET™. I look forward to seeing the innovative research that comes from this group. Hannah Sackles, a doctoral student in environmental engineering sciences, is using environmental stewardship to help Florida become better at managing waste and using resources wisely. Her research is looking to repurpose materials once people discard them, aiming to promote a Circular Economy and move closer to achieving the National Recycling Goal, and Food Loss and Waste Reduction Goal. 

Just as our faculty and researchers push the boundaries of knowledge, our students continuously demonstrate their ingenuity and passion through their academic pursuits and extracurricular endeavors. Marking the second time in nearly a decade, our American Society of Civil Engineers’ student chapter achieved first place in the regionals for Concrete Canoe, Steel Bridge, and overall competitions.  

Two alumni, Jeremy Waisome, Ph.D., (BSCE ’10, MECE ’12, Ph.D. CE ’17) and Carlos Palacious (MAS Coastal & Oceanographic Engineering ‘10) were named to UF’s 40 Gators Under 40 list. Since 2006, the university identifies outstanding young alumni who are making a difference in their respective fields. Waisome is the Thomas O. Hunter Rising Star Assistant Professor in the UF Department of Engineering Education. She is developing activities and evidence-based programs to support diverse students in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and computing. Palacious is the Founder and Managing Principal of several engineering and technical-related businesses, which includes development consulting, climate-resilient farming and sustainable manufacturing.  

As we reflect on the accomplishments of the past semester, I am filled with optimism for the future and eager anticipation for the groundbreaking research and innovation yet to come from our students, faculty, alumni, centers, and institutes. Together, we will continue to push the boundaries of knowledge and make meaningful contributions to our community and the world at large.  

Wishing you all health and happiness, 

Kirk Hatfield, Ph.D., 

ESSIE Director