The University of Arizona Logo

Civil Engineering Grad Student Heads Home to Rebuild After Nepal Earthquake

Time to read
2 minutes
Read so far

Civil Engineering Grad Student Heads Home to Rebuild After Nepal Earthquake

May 2, 2015
University of Arizona graduate student Ulina Shakya is applying her seismic engineering skills where they’re most urgently needed – her country.

Barely one week after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake in Nepal caused at least 6,000 confirmed deaths and leveled countless structures on April 25, a Nepali graduate student in civil engineering at the University of Arizona is returning to her Himalayan home to help rebuild.

“My city is destroyed, but my family is safe,” said Ulina Shakya, a PhD student from Nuwakot, Nepal, who got word on April 29 that she’d received an internship to put her engineering skills to work helping victims of the quake.

Two days later she was bound for Kathmandu.

Shakya’s internship is sponsored by BuildChange, a nonprofit organization that has built and retrofitted structures in Haiti and other seismic hotspots.

UA graduate student Ulina Shakya will spend this summer in her Himalayan homeland assisting other engineers in rebuilding efforts.

She is joining an international contingent of engineers gathering in Kathmandu, where their work will include inspecting houses so that displaced residents can safely return home. Shakya hopes to draw upon her professional contacts as a former engineer in the country, and on her seismic engineering training at the UA. Fluent in Nepali, she will serve as a translator for the team. 

UA is Epicenter of Earthquake Engineering Research

 Shakya came to the United States in 2013 specifically to conduct earthquake engineering simulation research with Robert Fleischman, associate professor of civil engineering at the UA.

As soon as he learned of the Nepal disaster, Fleischman was on the phone, finding a way for his Nepali graduate student to return home.

“I first learned about BuildChange when I performed earthquake reconnaissance in Haiti and had been in touch with the group’s CEO, Elizabeth Hausler,” Fleischman said. “When the recent earthquake hit Nepal, I contacted Elizabeth, which led to Ulina getting an interview and -- as occurs in these post-disaster settings  -- quickly turned into an internship and a position on the lead team going to lay the groundwork for assisting in the rebuilding effort. BuildChange is an excellent organization making a real difference in the world. I am very happy that Ulina is getting this opportunity.”

Shakya is attending the UA on a scholarship from the Schlumberger Fellow Faculty for the Future program, which helps women from underdeveloped countries gain education and training abroad. As part of her fellowship requirements, she is a teaching assistant in civil engineering and engineering mechanics. 

Her graduate research has included a semester at the University of California, San Diego, where she helped construct and test a floor-anchorage system that Fleischman is developing in research sponsored by the National Science Foundation’s Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation.

“Ulina entered our PhD program directly from her undergraduate work and one year of engineering work in Kathmandu but has picked up skills quickly,” Fleischman said. “She is serious, warm, genuine, and has a calming effect on any group she works with. She was extremely well liked by the research group at UCSD, faculty and students alike.” 

Learning on the Front Lines

Shakya had planned to continue her shake table research this summer in a lab at Lehigh University. Instead, she’ll learn about the effects of severe shaking on structures in a much more dramatic way. It will be her first time working in an earthquake-ravaged region.

But, as she finishes her coursework, meets with professors to avoid incompletes, and packs her bags just one day before leaving Tucson, Ulina Shakya sounds remarkably calm and collected, unafraid of what lies ahead.

“My greatest concern is that I have so little time in which to do so very much,” she said.

Her internship will last through May. She plans to remain in Nepal for the rest of the summer, doing whatever she can to help and spending time with family and friends.

Because her own home in Kathmandu received major damage from the quake, she will stay at a friend’s home -- a concrete structure that was spared.

Top picture: The village of Saku, 17 miles from Kathmandu, was devastated by the earthquake. The death toll is at least 250, and 95 percent of all buildings in the historic village were destroyed. (Photo: 2015 Nepal depremi (8) by Hilmi Hacaloğlu: Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons: