From Italy to Irvine, Graduate Scholar is Poised to Revolutionize the Future of Dams and Levees as We know it…

Spotlight Image

From sailing to cooking, meditating, running, and developing an Italian news website, Riccardo Cappa seems to be a “Jack of all trades.”  The Italian-born, UC Irvine graduate student lives by the motto: “Healthy mind in a healthy body,” and seems to be balancing work and life beautifully.

The civil engineering doctoral candidate recently received the 2015 UC Irvine Public Impact Distinguished Fellow award.  Riccardo, who studies earthquake-related hazards and disasters, is one of only three graduate students to receive the prestigious $10,000 award.

The Public Impact Fellowship supports doctoral students whose research has the potential to significantly improve or enrich local, national or global communities. In addition to the prospective impact of their work, the three recipients were selected on the basis of their presentations, interviews, academic records, letters of recommendation, and their ability to convey the research succinctly to a broad audience.

“I am thrilled to receive such an outstanding award that recognizes the importance of my work for the public,” says Riccardo.  “This fellowship is an incredibly motivating acknowledgment for young students, and I believe it will tremendously encourage all the awardees to pursue their career goals. Besides the public exposure, I am also very proud and thankful for the valuable support that UC Irvine provides to its students every year. I have to thank my parents for giving me the opportunity to be at this point in my life. This award is also for them and their sacrifices.”

Riccardo uses numerical simulations and separator models to portray the seismic response of water-diverting structures like levees and dams. In particular, he is studying levees on the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. These structures, which are made of loose dredged sands, were built on a highly compressible and easily erodible foundation and after many years of land reclamation and farming, the inland of the majority of Delta islands and tracts currently lie up to five meters below sea level.

As a consequence, a single crack in these fragile levees would easily result in the flooding of an entire island, causing considerable economic damage. A severe earthquake striking the region could cause multiple simultaneous breaks, resulting in a catastrophic scenario.

“I hope that my research will help in recognizing the potential for a catastrophic situation and encourage legislators to discuss possible solutions,” says Riccardo.  “The ultimate goal would be to someday help prevent a tragedy for the state, as well as, develop a novel analytical framework to study regionally and globally to improve the seismic performance of Levees.”

Riccardo, who expects to complete his doctorate this year, has a bachelor’s degree in architectural and building engineering, and a master’s in structural engineering. He already has gained public recognition of his research, presenting it to the Association of State Dam Officials, the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the California Geotechnical Engineering Association. He has several papers under review and published his work in last year’s Dam Safety National Conference publication.

In addition, Riccardo was chosen by Graduate Dean Frances Leslie to attend a student workshop in Washington D.C., in April, organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Participants in the Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering workshop will spend three days learning about Congress, the federal budget process and effective science communication, and will meet with members of Congress or congressional staff. 

He is also, one of two UC Irvine students selected to present his research to UC President Janet Napolitano in Sacramento on April 28 at the UC Graduate Research Advocacy Day.

Riccardo’s short term career objective is to become a researcher at a national science organization where he can conduct cutting-edge research with national and global impact. He hopes to help minimize loss of life and property from natural disasters, and enhance and protect our quality of life.  His long-term goal is to become an established engineer and be involved in an academic environment where he can contribute his knowledge, while mentoring students and making an impact on future generations.

Photos of Riccardo