Leading bridge engineer wins MacArthur 'genius grant'
Theodore Zoli, a 1988 alumnus and a visiting lecturer in Princeton's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering since 2003, has been selected as a 2009 MacArthur Fellow. Zoli is a structural engineer who has developed novel ways of protecting transportation infrastructure in the event of natural and man-made disasters.
Also chosen was Daniel Sigman, a Princeton University biogeochemist who has conducted pioneering work exploring the large-scale systems that have supported life on the planet throughout the millennia.
The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced that Zoli and Sigman were among 24 trailblazing artists, writers, scientists and others who each will receive a $500,000 no-strings-attached grant over a five-year period. The fellowships, known informally as "genius grants," honor the winners for their creativity, originality and potential to make important contributions to the future.
Zoli, who earned his B.S. in civil engineering and operations research from Princeton and his M.S. from the California Institute of Technology, is vice president and technical director of bridges in the New York office of the HNTB Corp., based in Kansas City, Mo.
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, he has focused on developing armoring strategies to retrofit iconic bridges across the United States to maintain their structural integrity against the possibility of damage from explosion. Drawing from military research on terrorist weapon technologies and tank armor, he developed a novel composite material that represents the state of the art in lightweight, blast-resistant coverings for a broad array of construction applications.
As a structural engineer, he also has led the design of elegant and enduring bridges around the world. He is an expert on long-span, cable-supported bridges. He has played a key role in the creation of a number of contemporary structures, including the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge in Boston and the Blennerhassett Island Bridge over the Ohio River near Parkersburg, W.Va. In Princeton, he has collaborated with noted Swiss engineer Christian Menn on the design of Streicker Bridge, the University's new pedestrian span being installed over Washington Road.
Zoli teaches a course at Princeton titled "Design of Large-Scale Structures: Bridges." Michael Celia, chair of Princeton's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Theodora Shelton Pitney Professor of Environmental Studies, said Zoli is the perfect person to receive the fellowship. "He is a great teacher," Celia said, "and terrifically creative."
Zoli has looked hard at improving efficiency in the design of bridges and other structures. "We sometimes optimized materials to such a degree that things became difficult to build and perhaps less safe," he said. "I've focused much of my career on building structures that are safer using forms that are easy to construct and fabricate and mass-produced materials that are more accessible."
That philosophy of building with materials that are easy to come by and use will likely influence how he proceeds as a MacArthur Fellow. He may use the fellowship, he said, as an opportunity to develop new building materials, such as thin-shelled structures reinforced with tire bead wire, the kind of metal wire found in radial tires. He also might explore new ways to build synthetic rope bridges for use in remote regions, including national parks and mountainous countries such as Nepal.
"Why build steel bridges when you have to carry in these big pieces of steel?" he said. "Instead, you could put a bridge in a few backpacks. If it's light enough to get it there and strong enough for the job, then it will serve the needs of rural populations."