Student Profile: Anna Liakou

ANNA LIAKOU (Ph.D. 2017) has big, expressive eyes, a husky, Greek-accented voice, and a ready laugh. She came to CEGE from Greece via Milwaukee with a degree in civil engineering and a strong desire to study mathematics.

Liakou’s passion for mathematics is not surprising; it is a passion she shares with many Greeks, a passion they consider a defining part of their culture and heritage. What early Greeks discovered still shapes what we understand about mathematics. “I share an interest in mathematics with my father; we both enjoy everything to do with math. I wanted to study pure mathematics, but my father who is an engineer argued, ‘Go into engineering and you will find math!’ So, he influenced me and I earned an engineering degree in Greece.”

After completing her degree, Liakou worked in construction. She was responsible for qualitative and quantitative supervision on one section of a large project, constructing a highway connecting Europe with Istanbul. The project exposed Liakou to several aspects of highway construction, geotechnics, fluid mechanics, pavements, and bridges. After five years, mathematics was still calling to her.

She was interested to learn about finite element analysis. She found a course offered through the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee and continued her studies online. It is a testament to her effort and ability that she so impressed the professor of that course that he invited her to come to the US. So she came to America and studied the discrete element method and constitutive modeling of geomaterials. “I always had in mind that there must be a way to understand mechanical behavior of geomaterials in a more fundamental way, rather than using constitutive modeling with multiple parameters.”

Liakou had a family friend in Milwaukee who had a good relationship with CEGE. Dino Xykis (BCE 1981, MSCE 1983, Ph.D. 1988) is an alumnus and serves on the department’s Advisory Board. He introduced Liakou to Professor Emmanuel Detournay. “I liked that Detournay’s expertise is fundamental mathematics. For him, starting with fundamentals is a way of thinking. We share this mindset, to begin by understanding the physics and the mathematics behind something.” So Liakou transferred to UMN to complete her Ph.D. working with Detournay. Her dissertation was on constrained stability analysis applied to drilling operations, a problem that involved both structural and mechanical aspects.

Liakou completed her degree in the fall of 2017. She has been able to continue working with Detournay in a postdoctoral research position. They are working on fracture mechanics with plasticity in quasibrittle materials, a new direction from her dissertation. Besides drilling and poromechanics, Detournay is an expert in hydraulic fracturing and fracture mechanics. “We are trying to understand material instabilities and localization phenomenon using fracture mechanics. There are many possible applications, such as drilling deep boreholes, excavating tunnels in soft rock, etc.”

Liakou appreciated the support she felt from the department. “Department Head Joseph Labuz helps the students a lot. It doesn’t matter where you are from, if he sees you have potential, he will help you.” A highlight for her was being awarded the Charles Fairhurst Fellowship. “I am very proud to have received this Fellowship. Partly because I know and admire Professor Fairhurst. The Fellowship was very helpful for my studies. It gave me freedom to pursue my own direction in research. Sometimes, a funding source might constrain a project in a certain direction. The Fairhurst Fellowhip did not constrain my research. I had freedom to explore the topic my way.”

She expresses admiration for the geoengineering faculty in CEGE. “UMN has an outstanding program in geoengineering. The geomechanics group here is famous everywhere! Otto Strack, Henryk Stolarski, Bojan Guzina, Joseph Labuz, and of course my adviser, Emmanuel Detournay, he is famous worldwide in the area of hydraulic fracturing. CEGE also brings interesting researchers from around the world. I had a conversation with David Bigoni, a famous mechanics professor who came from Italy to present at the Warren Lecture Series. There are newer professors, Dominik Schillinger and Stefano Gonella, that promise a great future for the department. I am very proud of my education from CEGE.”

“Geoengineering is a very interesting and growing field! There are many geomechanics questions still open! Research does not seem like a job to me. It is more a way of living—my American dream!” Liakou hopes to get a teaching position that combines her interests in structural and geomechanics areas.