Catherine French standing leaning against a metal beam.
Photo credit
Eric Miller

A stroke of serendipity

CSE faculty member wins award named after a professor she had 40 years ago

When Catherine French decided to study at the University of Minnesota like her father and her sisters before her, she was eager to learn. Little did she know that her thirst for knowledge as a high school senior would lead to three-decades-plus as a faculty member—and a teaching award named after one of her favorite professors.

The Charles E. Bowers Faculty Teaching Award was established in 2000 by John Bowers (Physics ’76) to honor his father. It annually recognizes “an outstanding professor who has demonstrated exceptional interest and commitment to the teaching of students in the College of Science and Engineering (CSE).” This spring, French, a CSE Distinguished Professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering, received the award.

“This is such a wonderful surprise,” French said. “I was an undergrad at the University of Minnesota between 1975 and 1979, and during that time I had the privilege of taking a water resources course with Professor Bowers.”

Although she can’t recall the details of the lesson plan, French–who earned her Bachelor of Civil Engineering in 1979–does remember the man who taught it.

“I loved him as a professor,” French said. “[Professor Bowers] had a quiet presence, but he was so very kind and interested in us, his students."

"To be recognized with a teaching award named in his honor has such special significance for me," she added. "I feel very fortunate.”

A path to excellence

Charles Bowers came to the University of Minnesota in fall 1947 for graduate study. After earning his master's degree in civil engineering, Bowers worked at the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory. He left after two years to join the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation but returned to the lab in 1951, continuing to share his knowledge with students. In addition to teaching, Bowers conducted studies of dams throughout the world, including an analysis of the spillway at Cachuma Dam (now Bradbury Dam in California).

“He retired as professor emeritus the year I joined the faculty in the spring of 1984,” said French, who also serves as the director of undergraduate studies for civil engineering in her department.

“That’s the closest I came to being his colleague!” French said. “And, unfortunately, I don’t think I ever told him what an impression he made on me.”

After graduating from the University of Minnesota, French went on to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. There she developed an interest in experimental research in structural engineering, and with her thirst for learning, she was encouraged to continue to pursue her Ph.D.

She was involved in a collaborative research project with the United States and Japan related to the first large-scale structure tested pseudo-dynamically in what was then the new research city of Tsukuba, Japan. Her graduate experience led to her first National Science Foundation research proposal awarded as a faculty member at the University of Minnesota to investigate earthquake effects of floor slab interaction on beam-column joints including multi-directional loading effects.

Memories to last a lifetime

“Professionally, our paths wouldn’t have crossed,” French said, when asked if she had ever run into her former teacher again. “Professor Bowers was focused on water resources-related research and I was focused on structural engineering—buildings and bridges.”

French’s current research interests include the development and behavior of resilient reinforced and prestressed concrete structural systems used in infrastructure and buildings subjected to earthquakes. She serves as the director of the University of Minnesota’s Multi-Axial Subassemblage Testing System (MAST) lab, where large-scale structural testing is conducted.

“Sometimes all it takes is one meeting or, in this case, one class with someone,” French said.

“Some people make that kind of positive impact. Professor Bowers was one of them,” she said. “I remember his voice, the sparkle in his eyes, his patience with us, and the pure joy he seemed to have in being there with us. That’s all I needed—one course with him to recognize that he was very special. It was clear that he loved what he did.”

A group of eight people standing behind a small bus.
This past winter, College of Science and Engineering professor Catherine French (second from left) led four University of Minnesota students to Tanzania to design a water distribution system for the village of Ugesa.

Like Bowers, French has received many awards for being a dedicated educator and mentor. In fact, this May, she was also honored with the 2019 Horace T. Morse-University of Minnesota Alumni Association Award for Outstanding Contributions to Undergraduate Education.

“For me, sharing knowledge that we gain through our research and professional activities is a great part of the draw of teaching,” French said.

“I didn’t imagine when I was back in Professor Bower’s class as an undergraduate that I would go on to graduate school and become a professor,” she said, “but I am so glad that I did.”

“I love my job—it gives me the opportunity to continue learning and to share that knowledge," French said. "I hope that my students are as inspired by me as I am by each of them. And I hope that I can convey that joy for being there with them in the classroom that Professor Bower’s conveyed to me.”

Story by Pauline Oo


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