Professor Debra Laefer Honored by University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Debra Laefer

When the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Alumni Association convenes in March to honor their most distinguished members, on the podium will be Professor of Urban Informatics Debra Laefer, who also serves as Director of Citizen Science at NYU’s Center for Urban Science and Progress and has an appointment in Tandon’s Department of Civil and Urban Engineering.

Laefer, who earned her doctoral degree at Urbana-Champaign in 2001, was chosen, as her awards citation states, for her “pioneering work in the collection, processing, and storage of remote sensing data, [which] has radically advanced the civil engineering community’s ability to conduct city-scale models for a wide range of applications including pedestrian wind comfort determination, solar radiation estimation, and pollution dispersion modeling, as well as risk assessment for tunnel-induced building movement and disaster management evaluation.”

Among her many achievements — widely reported in such outlets as Forbes, TechCrunch, and National Geographic — have been capturing above-ground urban geometry at unprecedented detail using Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) technology, creating the first distributed computing spatial database to store the full richness of such data, and providing a more scalable solution to populating city-scale computational models. She recently attracted widespread attention for using hyperspectral imagery to automatically distinguish strength characteristics in a wide range of building materials, as well as to distinguish between disparate materials — research of great practical use to a wide variety of stakeholders, including building owners, developers, and preservationists, who may soon have a new technique to quickly investigate the integrity of in-place construction materials to inform their respective activities.

The Distinguished Alumna Award is just the latest in a long string of honors for Laefer, who once taught at the University College Dublin and was the only civil engineer in that country ever to have been funded by the flagship program of the European Research Council. In 2016, for example, she was one of only eight researchers selected by the Royal Irish Academy to celebrate Irish women in science and engineering.

Although having your portrait commissioned and hung by a royal academy must surely rank high on a scale of glamor, Laefer is especially touched and honored to be feted by her alma mater, which was one of 37 public land-grant institutions established after the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act was signed by Abraham Lincoln on July 2, 1862 and which began its life as a single building erected on a vacant field between the Illinois Central train station in Champaign and the courthouse in Urbana.

 “The years in which I studied for my doctoral degree were formative ones for me, as they are for most people,” Laefer says. “I’ll always feel a special fondness and warmth for the University of Illinois, and I’m honored to be counted among the ranks of the school’s distinguished alumni.”

In garnering the award, Laefer is joining a long line of other distinguished UI alums, including Sharon Wood, who heads the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University Texas Austin, and who, like Tandon’s own Jelena Kovačević, is one of the few female engineering deans in the country.