Existing structures, data science researcher joins architectural engineering


By Mariah Chuprinski

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Rebecca Napolitano, a researcher who specializes in monitoring, diagnostics and adaptive reuse of existing buildings, will join the Penn State Department of Architectural Engineering (AE) as assistant professor on July 1.

She is the latest addition to the department’s structural engineering option area group.

Napolitano’s passion for existing buildings began with an archeology summer internship in Orvieto, Italy, while an undergraduate physics and classical languages major at Connecticut College.

“It was a really eye-opening experience, a look into a world I hadn’t seen or thought much about before: historic structures,” she said.

While digging and scraping away at dirt under a hot Italian sun, Napolitano began to wonder if digital techniques, like 3D modeling or simulations, could be run on the structures to learn more about why they might have failed and what could have been done to salvage them.

“It was on those questions that I later built my whole research platform, which carried me through my doctorate and on to Penn State,” she said. “The next summer, I repeated the internship, but this time, I spent all my free time collecting data and creating 3D models of the structures I was working on during the day. The ability to accurately capture the geometry and as-damaged condition of the structure seemed like a great starting point for building diagnostics.”

Napolitano said these new technologies have the potential to prevent existing buildings from being demolished and instead facilitate adaptive, sustainable re-use of them. Comprehensive datasets like those collected in historic building information modeling and simulations can assist in preventive maintenance, allowing building managers to repair a structure before a major problem develops.

Napolitano also diagnoses the cause of damage on existing buildings using simulations that she developed as part of her graduate dissertation work. The simulations test how historic buildings — such as the Baptistery di San Giovanni and Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy — respond to events like earthquakes, settlement, ocean waves and high winds in order to determine the buildings’ capacity and to develop predictive and intelligent maintenance plans for them.

Building on her past research, Napolitano plans to use eye-tracking software to augment current practices in damage detection, which would be a new application of the software often used in psychological and sociological research. Napolitano would collect data from an experienced structures inspector wearing Tobii eye-tracking glasses to see what he or she looks at when assessing a building. The data would allow Napolitano to create synthetic neurons that could be applied through machine learning for damage identification and diagnostics for years to come.

“Tracking what the building professional looks at will label large data sets and enable us to automatically diagnose damage on complex infrastructures,” she said. “It would allow us to determine the locations and magnitudes of cracks, corrosion or masonry issues continuously so that immediate repairs could be made.”

When Napolitano joins Penn State, she will develop and lead new AE courses on programming and machine learning applications for the built environment as well as building monitoring and diagnostics, where students will learn data science principles and systems thinking. She also will mentor undergraduate and graduate students and will recruit three doctoral students to staff her newly created Built Environment Analytics and Modeling Lab. She also plans to contribute to the College of Engineering’s Women in Engineering Program.

“Becca’s research will bring needed innovative preservation technology to the world’s aging infrastructure,” said Sez Atamturktur, Harry and Arlene Schell Professor and head of the AE department. "I am excited to see the positive impact she is sure to make at Penn State."

Napolitano will graduate in May with a doctorate in civil and environmental engineering from Princeton University.


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Megan Lakatos