Prof Celeste Viljoen helps develop standards to design optimal infrastructure

[Article by Corporate Communication & Marketing]

Prof Celeste Viljoen from the Department of Civil Engineering at Stellenbosch University recently delivered her inaugural lecture on the topic of Risk-based infrastructure design and assessment. Viljoen, who is also the Vice-Dean: Teaching in the Faculty of Engineering, spoke to Corporate Communication and Marketing about her work. optimal infrastructure

Tell us more about your research and why you became interested in this specific field.

Risk-based decision making appealed to me because of the broad applicability of the principles. It’s a combination of big picture thinking, but without losing sight of some devils in the detail. As a structural design engineer, I used standards for everyday work, but now I help develop these standards using a combination of data, statistics, prediction models, and risk-based principles. This serves society by providing structures with near-optimal life cycle costs.

How would you describe the relevance of your work, especially for our South African context?

Infrastructure spending is a big-ticket item for most nations, including South Africa. Our work supports the development of standards, which in turn underpin most infrastructure design and maintenance decisions. We contributed and are contributing to various national and international standards; including wind loading, traffic loading, reinforced concrete structures, liquid retaining structures, dam rehabilitations, existing bridges, the basis of design, etc.

I am very proud of our team. Emeritus Professor Johan Retief started the work and played a leading role in reviewing structural design standards in South Africa. I was appointed to succeed him, but we still work together to this day. I am truly thankful for the many ways in which he supported my career development. Another one of our team members, Prof Nico de Koker, has made wonderful contributions to support geotechnical design, i.e., soil structures, like foundations and embankments. Looking ahead, we have two large SANRAL funded research projects coming up. In the first, we will develop guidelines for the assessment of existing bridges; and in the second, Prof Roman Lenner will take the lead on reviewing the traffic load model for bridge design in South Africa.

What aspects of your work do you enjoy the most?

I enjoy working with my team and collaborating with scholars from other institutions. We have the privilege of guiding some brilliant students. I’m looking forward to seeing their careers develop too. ​Knowing that my research is relevant keeps me interested.

The pandemic has changed the way we work and live. What keeps you motivated during these times?

The joyful enthusiasm of my kids. Remote working had the lovely side-effect that I got to see much more of them. Colleagues who switch their video feeds on also help me feel connected, so I always appreciate that! But, some days, only grit and hope have kept me going. At times I struggled with burnout and had to force myself back into healthy habits such as sleeping enough and exercising!​

You’ve made your mark in the field of Engineering. What would your message be for the next generation of aspiring female engineering scholars?

Say yes to opportunities! Don’t be afraid of failure. Embrace that opportunity for growth, even if you feel intimidated. Choose to ignore the fear of failure. ​Often you must get into the (too big) shoes before you can grow into them.

Tell us something exciting about yourself that few people would expect.

I’m a right-brain person. I’m very interested in human psychology and motivation. I also used to spend a lot of time on creating fine art.

How do you spend your free time away from lectures and research?

I love reading, spending time with my kids, doing renovations, and playing tennis. We are often entertaining friends, and I am thankful that I have a husband who loves to do that because I get to enjoy the result.

​Photo: Prof Celeste Viljoen at her inaugural lecture. Photographer: Anton Jordaan.

Watch the Inaugural Lecture

Download Inaugural Lecture Publication