By Sharday Mosurinjohn
It wasn’t only Timothy and Patrick Richardson’s love of Queen’s rugby that kept them here as graduate students, but they didn’t waste the opportunity, either. When the twin brothers graduated from Queen’s with their undergraduate degrees in Engineering, they needed to seek reference letters to include with some of their job applications. They approached one of their favourite professors, Dr. Amir Fam. The Civil Engineering professor did the boys one better by offering them both spots in his graduate studies research group researching the construction and repair applications of fiber reinforced polymers (FRP) as an alternative to conventional rebar (steel-reinforced concrete). Tim and Pat both accepted Dr. Fam’s offer and are now about three quarters of the way through their M.A.Sc degrees – and back on the rugby field, having just won the OUA Championship as part of Queen’s Men’s Rugby team in November.
An average day in the lab for Pat involves finding out what it takes to stress a few thousand pounds of concrete to its breaking point. Pat is working on an innovative bridge design utilizing fiber reinforced polymers (FRP) as a stay-in-place form in a Ministry of Transportation-funded project. He took over the project from a PhD student who designed and built these bridge decks, which he tested until they reached their breaking point and failed. But bridges have to be able to resist repeated stresses over time, so for Pat, it’s not about loading the bridge to its ultimate capacity; it’s about seeing how the bridge deck performs under fatigue and how much weaker a FRP-reinforced concrete bridge deck gets after it is loaded millions of times. “I’m testing the most critical section of bridge deck: the center. The structure itself is about 1.5 meters by 2.5 meters and there’s a hydraulic actuator that repeatedly applies pressure to bridge deck in order to simulate vehicles repeatedly driving over it – if I ever need help in the structures lab moving my specimens or other equipment, I really depend on the help of my labmates and the lab technicians!” Pat says of his extremely heavy project. If the FRP-reinforced bridge deck performs well throughout these fatigue cycles (sometimes lasting upward of three million load repetitions) by showing little deflection (basically, remaining stiff and strong), the MTO may be interested in using these innovative bridge decks in future infrastructure. “The choice of material needs to be based on the application. Steel is a go-to, but with FRP you need to prove its benefits and reliability,” explains Pat.
Like Pat’s research, Tim’s project also relies on the premise that sometimes you’ve gotta break something if you want to know how to repair it. Steel and FRP have similar strength characteristics, but Dr. Fam and his students are interested in exploring the latter’s superior durability. Since people are reluctant to choose FRP over steel for construction, Tim is looking for other applications – perhaps repair situations. “FRP could be used to repair, say, any reinforced concrete beam in any given building, based off a building code and intended to support a known load,” elaborates Tim. “You can apply steel externally, but it will be subject to corrosion and deterioration. FRP will be better for this kind of repair because it doesn’t suffer from corrosion problems.” So Tim’s project involves damaging steel-reinforced concrete beams to different extents and then performing surface repairs with FRP. “I’m looking to find answers to questions like: how much of the material do you need? And since there are different varieties of FRP, which kinds do you use for which purposes? At what levels of damage can this repair be effective?”
Throughout months of 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. days in the lab (“Those are the lab tech hours,” laughs Tim, “and they’re amazingly helpful, so you want to be there when they are”), the brothers have also been training about 15 hours a week with their rugby teams, and usually spending at least one day a week traveling for games on top of that. “Rugby is really only a few months’ commitment, and dividing your time between dedication to a sport and your program is actually a good balance,” offers Pat. “It can be tough at times, but it is incredibly rewarding.” Plus, Dr. Fam’s lab is the source of some of their biggest fans; many labmates often turn up to cheer at the home games. “And Dr. Fam is supportive of us playing rugby. He likes our commitment to athletics and we try to return the favour by working as diligently as possible,” adds Tim. “Plus it helps us to have to set deadlines for ourselves,” he grins.
It's all about team work for Pat & Tim. Go Gaels Go! (Photos courtesy of Ben Stinson and Jose Lagman)
Tim and Pat value collaboration in their research and in their athletics, and sometimes, the two arenas overlap. Both grad students are TAs of other members of the rugby team. “It’s funny,” reflects Pat, “since we have late birthdays [December], we went from being in their position as the youngest on the team, having come into university at 17, to the oldest members now at 24.” According to Tim, the integration between the social worlds of their research and rugby allows the boys to model high standards in academics and sports. “The other students in our lab are so collegial – they’re just as willing to explain a concept as they are to help you move a three meter concrete beam – so we’ve come to really appreciate the importance of that kind of teamwork.”
Now that rugby season has successfully wrapped up, Tim and Pat have to re-embark on the job hunt. But neither predicts that it’ll lead to another degree this time. Both are seeking professional employment after they complete their Master’s research and planning to continue playing rugby through men’s clubs outside of the university system.