In her first months on campus, Kira Schiavello is already scaling lofty pinnacles.
Her climb started with a chance conversation with a professor last fall, says Kira, MS ’09 Civil Engineering.
“I was interested in getting some exposure to the research done in the department, and finding a way to tie what I was learning into the practical world. Professor (Rene) Testa told me about this opportunity and invited me to be a part of the team.”
The project was the vibration instrumentation and monitoring of the Manhattan Bridge, which spans the East River just north of the Brooklyn Bridge.
"There was a lot of anticipation in the days leading to the first climb, and a lot of preparation getting the equipment ready to go, and the harnesses fitted and tested,” she says. “The walk up went pretty quickly and got steeper as we got up to the top – by the end, we were all panting from the weight of the 10-pound harnesses plus all the equipment.
“At the top, the view was absolutely amazing. The Brooklyn Bridge was on one side, the city skyline was in front of us, and the massive cables reached out to the tiny cars going by below … It really made me appreciate the incredible magnitude of the structure, one that we may take for granted as we drive over it every day.”
Hometown: Saddle River, New Jersey
Undergraduate degree: B.S.E in Civil Engineering, Princeton University
Favorite Band: Coldplay
Favorite Book: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Favorite Movie: The Green Mile
Favorite spot in NYC: The Brooklyn Bridge
Hobbies: Sailing, reading, ballroom dancing, and writing poetry
Kira describes the experience as just what she was looking for.
“Immediately, I could see the connections between the classroom and the field,” she says. “In my Structural Assessment and Failure course, I had been learning about the kind of equipment used to monitor the motion and behavior of structures. The next week, I was climbing up a cable with 40 pounds of instrumentation on my back, which would soon be used to track the movement of the top of the Manhattan Bridge towers via satellite.
“Once the data was collected … I saw how we were able to produce those same graphs I had been learning about from actual data. No longer was the behavior of a graph just an abstract idea; now I could actually see how the graph represented, say, a subway car going over one side of the bridge.”
Inspired as a young child by her alumnus father Daniel Schiavello BS ’75, MS ’76, to become an engineer, Kira says it wasn’t until recently as an undergrad at Princeton that she decided to become a structural engineer. She was inspired by a course there called “Structural Art,” which has a goal of creating structures that achieve efficiency, economy and elegance in a single form. That same course is now available at Columbia SEAS.
“I hope to prove through my designs the very idea that I have been taught – that a beautiful structure does not have to be wasteful and an efficient structure does not have to be ugly.”