Patricia Culligan’s intellectual trajectory should be an inspiration to anyone who spends their life wondering what they want to be when they grow up. Culligan began her journey by specializing in soil mechanics in her undergraduate years because “soil mechanics felt like one of the civil engineering subjects I was studying where, because natural materials are so complicated, there was still so much left to learn.” She wrote her Ph.D. at Cambridge on the feasibility of storing nuclear waste in sediment, having arrived at that topic by studying how fluids, including contaminants, move through the soil. After a stint teaching at MIT, Culligan came to the Earth Institute, attracted by its promise to allow her to work across disciplines. At the Earth Institute, she began in a new direction, becoming “totally fascinated by the challenge of dense urban environments and the ability to live in them.”
Culligan, professor of civil engineering and engineering mechanics, undertakes joint research and co-teaches with Richard Plunz, professor of architecture and director of the Earth Institute’s Urban Design Lab. Among their areas of research is the Gowanus Canal area in Brooklyn, which was recently declared a Superfund site. As Brooklyn prepares for its density to increase, with an estimated population increase in the vicinity of 1 million people, Culligan is interested in “solving such urbanization challenges by design,” a strategy that, in her opinion, is not followed often enough. “Sometimes in our desire to understand the fundamentals of a problem, we lose sight of the necessity to actually solve it”, says Culligan.
Culligan’s research within her discipline focuses on applying geoengineering principles to problems related to subsurface contamination and remediation. Her particular interests include multiphase transport behavior in soils and fractured rock, including nonaqueous phase liquid behavior, colloid transport and transport in unsaturated media. She also has interest and experience in the design of land-based disposal sites for waste materials. Some of her current projects include a multi-disciplinary effort funded by the National Institute of Health and led by Lex van Geen, a research professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, to understand links between diarrheal disease and microbial contamination of shallow aquifers in Bangladesh. She is also the principle investigator of an Army Research Office project exploring mechanisms for explosives transport in groundwater.
In 2009, Culligan, as principle investigator for the Columbia Green Roof Consortium, was granted $500 thousand by the National Science Foundation in order to continue work on comparing and evaluating the effectiveness of different green roof technologies for use on campus buildings and other buildings throughout New York City. Project goals included improving scientific understanding of green roof performance, optimizing the technologies’ functionality, and realizing the potential benefits to human health, economic efficiency and pollution reduction. The Consortium, which runs New York City’s first-ever network of green roof research stations, has been active in engaging high-school students, undergraduates and graduate research assistants in its monitoring work.
Culligan received a B.S. Hons. in civil engineering in 1982 from the University of Leeds, and an M.Phil. (1985) and a Ph.D. (1989) from Cambridge University. She is the author or co-author of over 100 technical articles, including five books, four book chapters, and over 70 refereed journal articles and conference proceedings. She has received numerous awards including the National Science Foundation CAREER Award (1999), the Columbia Engineering School Distinguished Faculty Teaching Award (2006) and the Columbia University Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching (2007). She is the vice dean of Academic Affairs for Columbia's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, a member of the Education Committee at the Earth Institute and the Earth Clinic Steering Committee, and has worked on the design of the undergraduate major in sustainable development that launched in 2010.