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Pol Spanos: Profile of a 'generalist'

On the blackboard in his book-filled office, Pol D. Spanos, one of the world’s experts on the dynamics and vibrations of structural and mechanical systems, has written a column of seemingly random words in large block letters, including FINLAND, WIND, TONGJI TALK, TWO DISSERTATIONS, APPLIANCE and BROWN.

It’s a chalk-scrawled note to himself, a day book, and reflects Spanos’ crowded and continent-leaping life as a senior researcher and teacher at Rice University – talks to give, students to advise, and shopping for a new clothes dryer.

“I am a generalist,” said Spanos, the Lewis B. Ryon Chair in Mechanical and Civil Engineering, and professor of materials science and nanoengineering. “I respect physics and I’ve never been intimidated by mathematics. I’m excited by important problems, no matter what field they are in.”

His honors bear him out. In 2005, when elected to the National Academy of Engineering, Spanos was commended for “development of methods of predicting the dynamic behavior and reliability of structural systems in diverse loading environments.” And nine years later, when elected an Honorary Member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineering, he was recognized for “seminal contributions to the dynamic analysis and design of diverse mechanical systems.”

“I have never been restricted by specialization,” said Spanos, citing a paper he co-authored in 2011 with Rice’s University Professor Richard Tapia in the journal Vehicle Systems Dynamics: “A nonlinear model for top fuel dragster dynamic performance assessment.” Of it he says, “Now I know something about dragsters. Did you know that their engines exceed 7,000 horsepower?”

Spanos was born in Greece and in 1973 graduated with a diploma in mechanical engineering and engineering science from the National Technical University in Athens. From there he went to California Institute of Technology, where he earned a master’s degree in civil engineering in 1974 and a Ph.D. in applied mechanics two years later (he minored in applied mathematics and business economics).

After a year as a research fellow at Caltech, Spanos spent six years teaching at the University of Texas at Austin, and joined the Rice faculty as a full professor in 1984. He has published more than 350 technical papers and written or edited more than 20 books and conference volumes.

He serves on the editorial boards of many journals, and is editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Non-Linear Mechanics, and editor of the Journal of Probabilistic Engineering Mechanics. He has supervised the theses of 78 M.S. students and the dissertations of 49 Ph.D. students.

With his focus on the probabilistic, nonlinear and signal-processing aspects of dynamics and vibrations, Spanos’ research has found applications in structural, aerospace and offshore engineering, and in biomechanics and composite materials.

“I have been blessed with excellent research collaborators, both faculty colleagues and students. Rice has enabled me to work with very good people,” Spanos said.

His research group has developed computational models in the areas of vibration and aseismic protection of structures and equipment, estimation of seismic spectra, wind loads simulation, vehicle and robot dynamics, certification of payloads in space shuttle and space station missions, flow-induced vibrations of offshore rigs and pipelines,  directional oil-well drilling, and signal processing for electrocardiograms,
electroencephalograms and bone mechanics.

Spanos is busy collecting honors. He was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and, in 2015, was named a Distinguished Member of the American Society of Civil Engineers. The latter honor commended him as “an expert in the development of techniques for predicting the dynamics and reliability of constructed facilities subject to loads induced by earthquakes, ocean waves, and winds.”

Spanos is a member of the American Academy of Mechanics, the Houston Philosophical Society and the Humboldt Association, a foreign member of Academia Europae and the Indian National Academy of Engineering, and a corresponding member of the Academy of Athens, the National Academy of Greece. In 2013, he was named to a Chang Jiang chair at Tongji University, Shanghai, by the Chinese government.

In March of this year, after a visit to China, Spanos travelled to Sicily to receive the Gold Medal for International Research Leadership and Collaboration from the University of Palermo. 

“I have always loved Euclidean geometry,” he said. “The medal is shaped like a regular heptagon. That’s the first in the sequence of regular polygons with an ascending number of sides that cannot be constructed geometrically with a compass and a straight edge. Very appropriate. I am honored.”

–Patrick Kurp, Engineering Communications