New Faculty: Ashley Spear, Assistant Professor

September 29, 2014

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The University of Utah Department of Mechanical Engineering is pleased to announce the arrival this past summer of Dr. Ashley Spear to our tenure-track faculty.

“Engineering was not always something I wanted to pursue,” says Ashley Spear, mechanical engineering assistant professor at the University of Utah. Spear’s father is a civil engineer and, recognizing her aptitude for math and analytical thinking, frequently tried to convince her to consider engineering. Despite his best efforts, Spear would simply respond, “No, Pops, engineering is something boys do.”

It wasn’t until her second year studying biology at the University of Wyoming that Spear realized her father might be right. She had completed all the math requirements for a bachelor’s degree in biology while she was in high school, and by the end of her first year in college, she missed math so much that she decided to give engineering a try. “I hate to admit it, but Pops was right!” she jokes.

Spear decided to pursue a degree in architectural engineering. “I loved the design and build aspect of architectural engineering,” she recollects, “and a modeling software called Revit was released shortly before I started the program, so we had the opportunity to use the new software in our design curriculum at Wyoming, which was fantastic.” Revit is a building information modeling software that allows renderings of a building and all its components in 3-D, essentially generating a “smart” 3-D model from a basic 2-D floor plan. As a visual learner, Spear claims that various 3-D modeling and rendering tools continue, even today, to help her in understanding very complex phenomena.

While Spear loved the idea of designing and building large structures, it wasn’t until she started graduate school at Cornell University that she developed a deep interest in how structures fail, especially by crack formation. “Studying how structures and materials fail is sometimes like being a crime scene investigator,” she states, “we’ll intentionally break things in a lab setting and then go back and try to reconstruct the entire failure process, kind of like the cool animations that you see in the CSI shows.”

Spear received her bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering, summa cum laude, at the University of Wyoming in 2007, 45 minutes from where she grew up. She went on to receive her M.S. and Ph.D. in civil engineering at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, in 2014. She received an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship and was a visiting researcher at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA, for two years during graduate school.

Dr. Spear’s research focuses on gaining a better understanding of why, when, and how cracks evolve in structures across multiple length scales by leveraging 3-D computational modeling. She plans to apply her findings to design “smart” structures and materials that can serve multiple purposes simultaneously, for example a structure that not only bears all the loads that it needs to, but is also light-weight and capable of sensing and healing itself in the presence of damage. “We have a lot to learn from biological systems,” Spear describes, “For example, when you get a scratch on your skin, your body autonomously heals itself. Through the use of computer modeling, can we produce an analogous material system that is somehow encoded and designed to heal itself?”

“We live in a 3-D world,” says Spear, “It makes sense to address real problems in a 3-D manner.” Although difficult, Spear claims that using 3-D models can help promote tangible learning and a better comprehension and grasp of difficult topics. Dr. Spear plans to use 3-D modeling to students’ learning advantage when involving fracture mechanics, and she plans to also look into new ways of interpreting those results using machine-learning algorithms.

Not surprisingly, Dr. Spear hopes to attract more women into engineering. “I was successful as an engineering student largely due to various leadership and organizational opportunities. Also, creative and meaningful components of my engineering program, such as designing a green elementary school, were rewarding and played a huge part in my achievement.” Spear plans to provide an environment that fosters confidence and a connection to the community.

Dr. Spear is currently seeking creative, motivated, and hard-working students to join her research group. Learn more about Professor Spear, her research, and her group by visiting the Multiscale Mechanics and Materials Laboratory.

The Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Utah is committed to providing students with broad-based, rigorous and progressive education. By combining state-of-the-art facilities with renowned faculty, the department provides an education that gives students the necessary skills to become the next generation of innovators.