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New Faces: Ryan Sherman

Being a civil engineer definitely is a cool profession, according to Sherman. After all, sometimes you get to blow things up.

People  |  Oct 31, 2016  |  By Cheryl Bella
Ryan Sherman

Civil engineering professor Ryan Sherman. (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Photo Services)

After growing up in Wisconsin and attending Michigan Technological University and Purdue in the Midwest, this civil engineering professor is looking forward to the outdoor recreational opportunities in the Southwest.


There were a few things I really liked about UNLV. One is that I found the people really welcoming and encouraging. That may not be what people expect of Las Vegas, being such a transient town. Another reason is that the structures lab is pretty new. While there can be some benefits of walking into a well established facility, there are also disadvantages. At UNLV, I’m starting with a clean slate. For me, I was really excited about the lab’s potential, of being able to come in and make it what I want it to be.

What inspired you to get into your field?  

What really sparked my interest in engineering was my neighbor who owned a metal shop. During high school, I worked for him on the weekends and in the summer. I learned a lot and got really interested in building.

In college I became involved with the steel bridge team and got my bachelor of science in civil engineering. Graduating, I felt that while I had the general concepts down, I really needed more education. So I went to Purdue University to get a master’s degree.

What’s the biggest misconception about your field?

Let’s be honest, civil engineering isn’t portrayed as a sexy field. People don’t necessarily understand what civil engineers do. When they think of buildings or bridges, they think of the physical design and maybe architects. But in reality, there is a lot of technology that goes into building any structure. Plus, it doesn’t matter how good a structure looks if it can’t stand up.

Unfortunately, it often takes a disaster to make people aware of just how important civil engineering is. I think civil engineers often undersell themselves and what impact we have.

So, are civil engineers cool?

Absolutely, because sometimes we get to blow things up. While at Purdue, I worked on field monitoring to help solve department of transportation problems related to bridges. We installed instrumentation on bridges, and collected data because even the best modeling may not be 100 percent accurate. Sometimes you need to ask the structure.

We had the opportunity to test a bridge, spanning the Ohio River between Indiana and Kentucky that was set to be taken down using explosives. Since we had already been working with them, they were open to our request to tell them where to place the charges on one of the trusses. We blew out one of the members, which, in theory, should have made the bridge collapse, but, as we expected, the bridge hardly moved. Our structures are very resilient. You don’t get a lot of opportunities to demonstrate these types of things out in real-world scenarios, so that was an amazing experience.

What is the proudest moment in your life?

Well, personally, it would definitely be getting married. Professionally, it would be my work at Purdue. I worked on a project developing a fatigue design load of high-mast light towers. Based on the research, recommendations were made that are now implemented into the design code. I’m really proud that something I was involved with came full circle to have an impact in the real world.

Do you have any tips for success for students?

First, don’t be afraid to try new things. You may fail or make a mistake, but at least you’ll learn something along the way. Second, get involved. In general, college is very busy between classes, labs, and everything else that is expected of students. But getting involved, joining a student association or undergraduate research, will reap benefits in the future. If you’re in civil engineering, join the ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers) steel bridge team. You’ll meet people who can help you in the future, learn how to solve problems, and work on a team.

Pastime or Hobbies

I like outdoor activities, such as golfing, biking, and snowboarding. That’s one of the reasons we were excited to move to Las Vegas. For a city in the desert, it is relatively close to a lot of outdoor recreation sites. I also enjoy wood and metalworking. There is something very rewarding about building your own furniture.

Tell us about an object in your office that has significance for you.

Well, that would have to be pieces of a fractured beam. While completing my Ph.D., I took 50 foot beams, cut notches into them to grow a fatigue crack, cooled them down to minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit using liquid nitrogen, and then applied 400,000 pounds to get the crack to fracture. In my office, I have a few pieces I cut from the beams.