It really matters to Sissy Nikolaou to be in the service of making people safer.
She witnessed the devastating effects of earthquakes at a young age, when a strong tremor leveled her family’s home in central Greece … a place filled with happy memories of carefree summer vacations.
Living through this loss and its impact on her loved ones left an indelible impression on Nikolaou, who was motivated to dedicate her life’s work to fighting extreme events through engineering.
“I have always had a curiosity about things that are hard to predict, and few things are as uncertain as earthquakes,” Nikolaou said. “That’s the beauty and the challenge of what I do – finding solutions to protect populations and help them emerge stronger from natural forces that can strike without warning.”
In her role as a principal multi-hazards and geotechnical engineer in the New York office, she is often called to the front lines when a natural disaster strikes, as she did after Hurricane Sandy and in numerous earthquakes, including involvement with local agencies and reconnaissance organizations such as the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI) and the Geotechnical Extreme Event Reconnaissance Association (GEER).
“It is heartbreaking when I see damage caused by natural hazards that could have been prevented, often just by common sense and proper education of the public,” Nikolaou said. “It reminds me of the responsibility we have to create safer places for people to live as civil engineers.”
One way Nikolaou is bringing major changes to natural disaster recovery is by encouraging engineers to rethink the way they approach earthquake resiliency … and not just in areas prone to seismic activity.
“Engineers have a responsibility to think about what we are doing and how we can make things better for our generation, and for generations to come,” Nikolaou said. “You can have the best tools and the best financing at your disposal, but that doesn’t mean you are creating a better environment for people if you don’t think about the full impact of your decisions.”
Nikolaou recalled talking to decision-makers after the 2016 Ecuador earthquake, who were under tremendous pressure to make something happen fast to return life to normal. She worked to help them understand that this was the best time to set long-term goals and prepare for the next major earthquake.
“We don’t want to simply help a community ‘bounce back’ to prior conditions,” she said. “Our goal is to help them ‘bounce forward’ and make things better.”
In January, Nikolaou returned to Greece as a featured speaker at the TEDx conference at the National Technical University of Athens– an experience she admitted was “very cool.”
During her presentation, “Engineering Decisions Towards Resilient Infrastructure and Communities,” she compared “life safety” to “life quality” and explained why communities need to take a holistic view toward natural hazards recovery and resiliency.
“Building codes satisfy ’life safety’ for an extreme event with design of a structure so that will give the occupants a chance to get out alive,” she said. “But if we don’t prepare for what happens afterward – if we don’t find the right approach to ensure future quality of life for the communities – then we haven’t achieved our goals as engineers, or as a society.”
She urged the audience of mostly students in engineering, architecture and planning to seek resources out of their expertise to quantify and incorporate “life quality” as a factor in their designs.
“We cannot stop earthquakes, hurricanes and floods, and extreme weather from happening, but we can stop them from becoming national disasters using innovative engineering tools, provided we work together in a multidisciplinary setting, rather than as isolated components focused in our field of expertise,” she said.
In March, Nikolaou was honored for her election to Fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), in recognition of her contributions in geotechnical and earthquake engineering and development of creative solutions that change lives around the world. It is an honor held by fewer than 3.5 percent of more than 150,000 ASCE members. “It is such an honor to be recognized by your peers – it really gives you a jolt of energy to move forward,” she said.
She said with earthquake engineering being a “relatively young field,” it was gratifying to see it gaining notice in organizations like ASCE—a reflection of its increasing relevance to the frontiers of the engineering challenge of fighting against multi-hazards while maintaining assets that have often exceeded their life cycle.
“Even in areas of moderate seismic activity, the potential for devastating damage is large if the infrastructure – such as firefighting water supply system and buildings – is not prepared to handle the immediate after-effects of an earthquake,” she said.
Nikolaou was recently appointed by the Structural Engineers Association of New York to serve on the Applied Technology Council (ATC) board of directors. ATC is a nonprofit organization that develops and promotes standards to mitigate hazards in the built environment.
“ATC facilitates technology transfer on structural engineering issues and many of its products, in the form of procedures and guidelines, are incorporated into codes and standards,” she said. “I think the opportunity to have someone with my background on the geotechnical side is very important. I’m hoping to shake things up.”
In May, Nikolaou will return to her alma mater, the University of Buffalo (UB), as the distinguished alumnus speaker at the commencement for the School of Engineering Class of 2017. She earned her master’s and doctorate degree in earthquake/geotechnical engineering from the university, and is a member of the advisory board for the dean of engineering, Dr. Liesl Folks.
“I’ve stayed involved with UB since graduating, and I appreciate the solid education and continuous support its faculty have been giving me to this date,” she said. “It’s a tremendous honor to have this opportunity to speak to the new graduates.”
She hopes to inspire the students through her own passion for engineering. “In the words of actress Uta Hagen, ‘We must overcome the notion that we must be regular … it robs you of the chance to be extraordinary!’”
Nikolaou was pleasantly surprised when she was named a 2017 WSP Technical Fellow of Earthquake Engineering in recognition of her technical innovation, dedication to her profession and global leadership in her field.
“Since I arrived at the firm, I have felt welcomed and appreciated by our engineers and staff who are proud, but down to earth, with a team spirit that recognizes the hard work of everyone involved with a project. I enjoy the opportunities of consulting fellow engineers regarding seismic aspects of their projects in a wide spectrum of markets around the globe,” she said.
“Now reaching this level of technical recognition among an impressive and outstanding group of candidates is humbling and shows how much this organization appreciates people that have devoted their professional life to being the best they can be,” she added.
Nikolaou said mentoring was one of the criteria the judges factored into their decision. She acknowledged having the good fortune to have tremendously talented mentors in her life, and now she tries to pay it forward with the young people that she mentors.
“The only way we truly move forward is by getting the younger generation excited about what we do and how we do it,” Nikolaou said. “Leadership for me is not counted by how many followers you have, but by the ability to inspire and help create new leaders. Get out of your comfort zone, express your ideas, and see if your ideas can be incorporated into projects and become a reality.”