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Sissy Nikolaou

Dr Sissy Nikolaou, PhD, PE, D.GE, F.ASCE

AVP, Principal of Multi-Hazards & Geotechnical Engineering

WSP Fellow of Earthquake Engineering


Dr. Sissy Nikolaou is an Assistant Vice President at WSP with over 25 years of global engineering experience. As a Principal, she oversees WSP’s geotechnical earthquake engineering practice and leads its multi-hazard resilience initiative. Her consulting approach emphasizes performance-and resilience-based design, soil-structure interaction, and geo-risk assessment and mitigation. Her experience involves numerous critical facilities, infrastructure and transportation projects as well as high-rise structures, including project in New Zealand. She is driven by a desire to find innovative solutions that protect populations to help them emerge stronger from natural disasters. Dr. Nikolaou has been part of the reconnaissance of major natural disasters of earthquakes and hurricanes around the world. She is also involved in the new generation of guidelines and codes for extreme events.

For her contributions, Dr. Nikolaou was invited to the White House to participate in the Earthquake Resilience Summit of 2016 and was named Technical Fellow of Earthquake Engineering of WSP in 2017. Her recognitions include the Prakash Prize for Excellence in Geotechnical Engineering, the ACEC-NY Principal of 2017r, and leadership Board positions in the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI), Applied Technology Council (ATC) and the Geo-Institute of ASCE. She is Board-Certified by the Academy of the Geo-Professionals (AGP) and currently works on earthquake engineering developments funded by FEMA and NIST on identifying functional recovery in addition to life safety performance targets, and by FHWA on post-hazard response and resilience framework for bridge and tunnel highway infrastructure systems.


FUNCTIONAL RECOVERY: Design Utopia or Elective Reality?

Resilience was introduced as the most pressing research and practice challenge in earthquake engineering more than 15 years ago. Since then, it has become a catchphrase that, under its placard, has initiated major efforts for the future of infrastructure, facilities, and communities served by them globally. The abstract resilience concept has been stretched so much at the risk of becoming a modern Tower of Babel, where occupants talk without really understanding each other. However, resilience is not a trend that sounds good at water-cooler conversations – it’s making informed decisions based on risk assessments that rely on the best knowledge, science, and technology available, while optimizing funding allocation.
The future of engineering resilience includes the performance objective of “Functional Recovery” in addition to the traditional “Life Safety.” The speaker will present her views on this pragmatic – rather than the idealistic – goal with focus on geo-structural aspects, including: (i) translating the common desire for resilience into quantifiable terms, design frameworks, and decision support tools; (ii) addressing multidisciplinary interaction, cascading hazards, and interdependencies between buildings and lifelines; (iii) incorporating functional recovery as a fundamental metric of life quality, as not a “bouncing back,” but rather a “bouncing forward” strategy; (iv) using engineering as an art form which can be carved with innovative tools and documented lessons of failures and successes to create future cities and safely sustain existing communities; (v) integrating the human factor through a holistic approach that requires education, clear communication and trust, risk prevention, equity and inclusion, and growth.
Examples from design projects, applied research, and geotechnical reconnaissance following major earthquakes will be presented, with highlights of successful performance of functional recovery, achieved through incorporation of innovative soil-structure interaction approaches and geo-technologies. This living proof of the value of a resilience-based philosophy enhances the confidence of the stakeholders and the public and demonstrates that geotechnical engineering leadership is essential in the path to resilience. A path that is the obvious and – possibly the only – choice for the future, as the traditional alternative is no longer enough.