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Where Are They Now: Nathan Toohey is Making Seismic Waves

28 Jan 2016 10:09 AM | ASCE Blog Editor (Administrator)

By Djuna Gulliver

Nathan Toohey, P.E., was an undergraduate student in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at Carnegie Mellon University in the year 2000 when he won the ASCE Pittsburgh Section Student Award Foundation Grant.  “It was a great feeling, to be acknowledged by my peers, colleagues, and especially my mentors,” Nathan says. 

By 2003, Nathan had graduated and taken a non-profit job in Fort Collins, CO, with Village Earth to work on community-based sustainable development practices with civil engineering applications.  This job gave him the opportunity to travel to Purulia, India to assess the hydrologic needs for three rural villages through water quality analysis, geologic reconnaissance, and topographical surveying.  There, he also assessed necessary structural and cosmetic refurbishments for an abandoned community center.

In 2007, Nathan decided to pursue a Master’s degree at the Colorado School of Mines researching the ability to geomechanically characterize chemically-stabilized soils using a seismic wave-based technology.  In December 2015, at School of Mines, he finished a Ph.D. specializing in dynamic (low-frequency), poromechanical characterization of saturated sands.  With his Ph. D. adviser, Nathan developed a real-time monitoring system of a vibratory plate, used to compact foundation soils on the seabed floor in Venice Lagoon, Italy after the seabed was dredged for retractable floodgates.  Amidst his research, Nathan also co-patented two methods (one accepted, the other pending) that characterize subsurface fractures networks to provide treatment completions evaluations using passive seismic signals during hydraulic fracturing stimulation.

Nathan took the time out of his busy schedule to talk about what he loves about his field and what he misses about Pittsburgh.

What do you enjoy most about your current job?

Collaborative, inter-disciplinary research. Contemporary engineering solutions require knowledge and insight from multidisciplinary teams to bridge gaps between civil, environmental, mechanical, and electrical engineering knowledge to incorporate the advancements provided by the systems control and computing science communities. 

In tandem with graduate school, I work for an oil and gas service company that provides geophysical monitoring and completions evaluation for hydraulic fracturing.  It is very rewarding to be a part of this energy industry with the ability to interactively contribute to technological innovation and improvement. 

What advice would you give other young engineers?

Get practical experience, but aspire for higher education. Pursue advancing the state-of-art, once you have a well-developed understanding of current practice. Innovate! Learn to communicate with those who do or do not have a similar technical background. The consulting world can be notoriously resistant to change and innovation. Develop and communicate new ideas and integrated solutions. Civil engineering is advancing in so many new and exciting directions, be a part of it!

I have also benefited from working professionally with colleagues in Sweden, Italy, Canada and India. I encourage engineering students to seek international experience, either in academia or industry. Institutional impedance can often blind US developments with respect to what the rest of the world is developing.  Listen, observe, and collaborate.

What is your best memory of being a civil engineering student?

Working with the Carnegie Mellon Civil and Environmental Engineering faculty. Jim Garrett, Susan Finger and Larry Cartwright played instrumental roles in how my professional choices ultimately guided my career trajectory. 

I also spent my junior year studying abroad at Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland. This was a fantastic opportunity to engage engineering from a different perspective, and to also identify the ties that bind us.

What classes and activities did you participate in that have most influenced you?

I wanted to be a civil engineer because of the practicality of building. Designing a project and seeing the results always held great reward in my eyes. Senior Design and Construction was a literal realization of this process. I also participated in an Independent Study semester doing timber design and construction, with Larry Cartwright advising. Both of these experiences gave me considerable insight into what might actually be incongruent with respect to an expected engineering design and physical construction constraints.

Is there anything you miss about Pittsburgh?

So many good, friends, culture. Pittsburgh has such a wonderfully diverse culture, and the seeds for amazing technological development. But I mostly miss good old-fashioned pierogies and them Stillers!

To contact Nathan Toohey email him at:

In 1988, members of the ASCE Pittsburgh Section founded the Student Award Foundation (SAF) of the Pittsburgh Section of the American Society of Civil Engineering.  Since that time, the SAF has given awards to emerging leaders who call the Pittsburgh Section home.  In 2007, American Bridge Company provided a donation of $75,000 and, since, the primary award is the American Bridge Leadership Award.  Thanks to the donation by American Bridge, the SAF annually confers the American Bridge Leadership Award of $5,000 or more.  In addition to the American Bridge Leadership Award, the SAF bestows 

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