Professor Billie F. Spencer
Nathan M. and Anne M. Newmark Endowed Chair in Civil Engineering
Director, Newmark Structural Engineering Laboratory
Director, Multi-Axial Full-Scale Sub-Structured Testing and Simulation Facility
Director, Smart Structures Technology Laboratory
Professor Bill Spencer is arguably the world’s foremost expert in wireless smart sensing of infrastructure, the use of computerized sensors connected in networks to monitor structural health. His leadership in executing the world’s largest deployment of such a system—on the Jindo Bridge in South Korea—has made CEE at Illinois the leading university in this innovative field. And according to Spencer, the donors who funded his chair, the Nathan M. and Anne M. Newmark Endowed Chair in Civil Engineering, can claim some credit for making that possible.
In addition to the honor, one of the benefits of an endowed chair is an annual stipend, which faculty can use at their discretion. Before the Jindo deployment Spencer had already established himself in the field of wireless smart sensors, but the chair funds took that research to the next level.
“I didn’t have sufficient resources to participate in that deployment from my research contracts, and it was the Newmark Chair account that allowed us to lead that effort and position us as the number one university in wireless smart sensors for structural health monitoring,” Spencer says. “I’ve always had funding from the National Science Foundation for the basic research, but these demonstration projects are harder to get funding for. On the other hand, they really drove this research to a level of maturity that would be useable beyond what you would typically find in a laboratory. There was a huge benefit from having those resources available.”
Spencer joined the department in 2002 from an endowed faculty position at Notre Dame. The promise of holding what was then the Newmark Professorship helped attract him to Illinois.
“Illinois has a strong program anyway, from the faculty to the students to the research portfolio, but Newmark is one of the preeminent names in engineering, so the prestige, the honor of holding that professorship certainly was attractive,” he says.
In 2004, additional gifts elevated that professorship, and Spencer was named the inaugural Newmark Chair. As with all gifts in support of academic research, the Newmark Chair has become the gift that keeps on giving, enabling numerous students to benefit from involvement with the project. For example, in 2009, Spencer hosted the Asia Pacific Summer School on Smart Structures Technology.
“We were able to utilize the things we had developed in support of the Jindo Bridge project to form some of the laboratories for the 50 students who were here for that,” Spencer says. “This whole area was able to bloom, from what might have been a small-scale laboratory endeavor, because of the Newmark Chair.”