A Structural Standout: Professor Honored for Decades of Bridge Engineering Research



By Simon Morrow
Gongkang Fu

Illinois Institute of Technology Professor of Civil and Architectural Engineering Gongkang Fu received the Roy W. Crum Distinguished Service Award from the National Academy of Science’s Transportation Research Board (TRB). 

Given to one individual annually, the award recognizes outstanding achievements in the field of transportation research. The board reviews a wide range of transportation modes including highway, railway, aviation, and more, and it considers a broad range of research contributions from construction and design, to legislation, to the psychology of driver safety and beyond. 

Fu is one of just a few researchers in the history of the award to be recognized for contributions to structural engineering, and the TRB specifically acknowledged “his significant, innovative, visionary, and practical contributions to bridge engineering research.” 

“I was so happy of course. It covers quite a long history of my work, and I’m glad that work was recognized,” he says. “It’s unusually significant.”

Fu’s longest overarching effort was the creation of a bridge deterioration model. The concept was later adopted and implemented state by state into national practices that help engineers assess and monitor the health of bridges as they age. 

He got the idea for the model in the early 1980s when, as a graduate student, he became interested in combining his knowledge of bridges with a mathematical modeling technique that he was learning in a course. 

In order to create a proof of the concept, he needed historical data over many years. As this was pre-internet, Fu spent hours in the library scouring journals.  

“I found some experimental data for steel bars showing the life of the structure and how deterioration progressed, eating up the material bit by bit, just by exposure to the atmosphere,” he says.

This allowed him to demonstrate the starting point for his model. Fu’s implementation has stood the test of time. He credits this to his balancing a desire to be innovative and visionary with buy-in and support from other engineers. Fu continues to contribute on this subject to this day. 

Over his career, Fu has also made a range of other contributions to the field including evaluating the impact of heavy trucks on bridge infrastructure with methodologies that have been applied nationally as well as other advances in bridge safety and reliability. Some of his work has been adopted into national specifications of bridge engineering.

“These are mandatory requirements for engineers to carry out in their daily work regarding safety. These specifications are supposed to cover the entire highway system in this country. We’re talking about 630,000 bridges,” says Fu. “The work that I was awarded for includes some that has been practiced by engineers for about 30 years already, and history has proven that the work was really substantial and rigorous.”

Fu says that he takes what he’s learned during his career and uses it to help his students create their own moments of insight and connection by asking them to think about how their other areas of interest connect with what they’re learning in his courses. 

Fu was also recently the recipient of the 2021 Ernest E. Howard Award and the 2020 Alfredo Ang Award on Risk Analysis and Management of Civil Infrastructure by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Photo: Professor of Civil and Architectural Engineering Gongkang Fu