Civil engineer wins BYU Three-Minute Thesis Competition

Jennifer Craft had been mentally preparing for the most nerve-racking three minutes of her life. Sitting in the audience and going over her presentation, she had a sudden bolt of inspiration. With her legs shaking and her heart racing she got onto the stage and knew what she needed to do…open with a joke.

“I said, ‘You’re more likely to experience a severe earthquake here in Utah than you are finding a spouse on a blind date…well, maybe not at BYU,’” she joked.

Craft, a civil engineering graduate student at BYU, won first place and $5,000 at the university’s annual Three-Minute Thesis competition. The competition gives students the opportunity to present their researched theses in an engaging and concise manner. Each contestant is permitted exactly three minutes to present their research topic and explain its relevance. 

Craft’s thesis focuses on making steel buildings more resistant to earthquakes as well as reducing both the physical and financial damages that earthquakes cause.

“After an earthquake has occurred, it often leaves a building drifted, or deformed, so much so that it’s often more expensive to repair the building than it is to rebuild it,” explained Craft. “I look at how we can reduce drifts in buildings.”

Craft’s research combines a new method of bracing buildings with a preexisting method.  Overall drift in structures can be reduced by adding an “elastic level,” or a level of the building that has extra-large braces designed not to yield, as well as using existing technologies that help dissipate energy among levels. These changes will not only help preserve buildings, but will also save money.

“In Utah we’re expecting a big earthquake within the next 50 years, like a magnitude 7, which is about the size of the Haiti or New Zealand earthquakes, and that would cause a lot of structural damage,” said Craft. “My research will help preserve both buildings and the economy after an earthquake, which is important because after an earthquake, economically, you’re in a disaster zone.”

With so much potential to improve and save lives, it is no wonder that Craft is passionate about her research area. She believes that enthusiasm, coupled with a lot of hard work, helped her win first place in the Three-Minute Thesis competition. Competitors are judged on their comprehension and content, as well as on their engagement and communication. Before the competition, Craft felt that her comprehension and content were strong, but knew she could improve in the other areas.

She practiced consistently with her advisor, Prof. Paul Richards, her mother, her husband and in front of undergraduate classes. With their help, she was able to perfect a conversational delivery and welcoming demeanor. The more she practiced, the more she was able to increase her engagement and communication.

“Practice a lot!” said Craft. “I started early, made a draft and practiced it a lot, made changes, practiced even more and so on. The more you practice the more you open yourself to changing it and making it better and better.”

Craft’s genuine excitement for civil engineering stems from her love of design and a desire to make her mark on the world. Beyond research and the classroom, she has participated in technical study abroad programs in China and the Dominican Republic studying structures, transportation and water resources.

“The reason I got into civil engineering was that I liked designing things that you can see,” Craft said. “I remember going to a presentation about a big water dam and thinking it was so cool to be able to see a big project and say, ‘I worked on that.’”

Craft graduates this April and is planning to use a portion of her $5,000 prize money to travel with her family. Both Craft and her father served full-time missions in Australia and they plan to return there together for the first time. Following her trip, Craft, with her husband, will move to Houston, Texas to work as an engineer for ExxonMobil.

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