Forbes Selects Engineer for ‘30 Under 30’ List

Hao SunWhen Hao Sun arrived in Pittsburgh in September, he took particular notice of the decades-old buildings and bridges dominating the city’s skyline and rivers.

It’s a natural inclination given his work: Sun has been studying ways to measure the stability of aging structures, an effort that led Forbes to name him to its annual “30 Under 30” list. The list highlights scientists, professors, entrepreneurs and inventors who are trailblazing the future of companies, labs and research while advancing knowledge of the world and the people in it.

“It’s a real honor,” said Sun, an assistant professor in the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering. “It’s really exciting and encouraging to see many exceptional peers in the list. It’s also encouragement for the future and I hope to continue doing high-impact research.”

Sun’s research combines sensors that measure vibrations with big data analytics to determine the “health” of buildings and other structures.

These sensors, which can fit in the palm of a hand, combine GPS technology, accelerometers and tiltmeters, which measure a building’s deformation and vibration. Gauges also are used for monitoring temperature, humidity, wind velocity and other weather conditions.

The sensors communicate to each other through “internet of things” technology, which connects any device with an on-and-off switch to the internet and then to other devices. The sensors provide consistent and constant feedback while picking up vibrations. 

Sun hopes to develop a reliable system for officials and engineers to use to determine strategies for addressing issues with aging structures, whether it be minor fixes, major repairs or ultimately tearing them down in a controlled manner.

“Hopefully this research can bring benefits to our society and our societal needs,” he said. “We can use this information to measure the safety of our buildings and infrastructure.”

Sun said Pittsburgh has many tall buildings and “tons” of bridges, many of them built decades ago, with some experiencing corrosion damage from years of wear and tear.

“Those issues could become serious problems in the future,” he said.

Sun previously tested this sensor technology approach on Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Green Building, and it also is being applied to monitor the Al-Hamra Tower in Kuwait, the 23rd tallest building in the world, measuring 1,358 feet.

The tower experiences severe temperature changes in the Arabian Desert and can be affected by earthquakes from nearby epicenters in Iraq and Iran. Sun is working with the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research to continue the ongoing research collaboration with his colleagues from MIT, and now, Pitt.

“I was thinking about installing some temporary sensors in the Cathedral of Learning,” Sun said with a smile on his face. “It would be fun and interesting. We could maybe place several sensors on different floors of the Cathedral.”

Along with the Forbes recognition, Sun also has received multiple scholarships and awards, including two poster competition awards from the Engineering Mechanics Institute Conference 2014, the Boeing Fellowship, the National Science Foundation Workshop Travel Award and the China National Merit Scholarship. 

He also serves as head of the Lab for Infrastructure Sensing and Data Science at the Swanson School.

“It’s been really exciting to join Pitt,” he said. “It’s like family here in the civil and environmental engineering department."