Dynamic approach builds career accolades for construction engineering professor

Edmonton – With the capacity to harness complex data combined with the desire to explore the grey areas, University of Alberta professor Aminah Robinson Fayek is poised to make a significant impression on the construction industry – even more than she already has.

Barely fifteen years after completing her PhD, Dr. Robinson Fayek has made great strides researching decision-making processes, assessing performance and risk, and learning to understand the multifaceted, highly variable elements involved in construction.

This weekend, the University of Alberta professor will be honoured by the Canadian Society of Civil Engineering's Walter Shanly Award for her career contributions to the development and practice of construction engineering in Canada.

It wasn't so long ago that her own major decision-making process began. Choosing her undergraduate degree involved weighing her deep-seated interest in the fine arts and her love of math. Finding that compromise initially led to considering an architecture major, but a sampling of engineering courses in the first year prompted a switch, and she emerged from McGill four years later with a degree in civil engineering.

Near the end of her undergraduate studies, she spoke with Dr. Osama Moselhi, a professor at Concordia University, who posed an intriguing question: What about construction? As Dr. Robinson Fayek says, “I thought it was fascinating because it combined a couple things: the human element, with decision making and subjective knowledge” –now the focus of her research– “and it combined the fact that you had a diversity of exposure on construction sites and a variety of different organizations. I thought it was very dynamic.”

Heading west to the University of British Columbia for her Masters, she saw the unique opportunities and possibilities available in graduate work. Through supervisor Dr. Alan Russell, she got her first taste of working with academia and industry simultaneously, and was introduced to a concept called fuzzy logic which would provide the foundation for Dr. Robinson Fayek’s career.

A relatively modern approach, fuzzy logic deals with approximate and subjective reasoning which more closely resembles human thought and decision making processes.  Robinson Fayek’s doctoral thesis at the University of Melbourne and much of her subsequent research has focused on this concept and explored ability to model and predict the risks, performance, productivity and costs of construction projects. This research, combined with her determination to explore uncertainty and subjectivity, and her ability to find symmetry between academia and industry brought her to the University of Alberta.

Dr. Robinson Fayek’s latest research hopes develop and use hybrid systems and models to help capture construction industry expertise and decision-making, particularly as it faces the loss of many of its veterans through retirement. Capturing expertise and mental processes involves aspects such as attitude, skill level and training, which are extremely important elements on a job site but are difficult to define. The next step for Fayek is to combine fuzzy logic with genetic algorithms, neural networks and simulation models to improve the representation of natural processes on job sites. These models represent human expertise and domain knowledge as well as the data gathered on job sites, to better represent the whole picture.

This industry-focused research offers mutual benefit to her partner organizations and the study of construction engineering on the whole. Her research has developed processes, simulations, best practices and assessment measures for companies such as the Construction Owners Association of Alberta, Suncor Energy, Enbridge Pipelines, Aecon Lockerbie Industrial, Ledcor Industries, AON Reed Stenhouse, AXA Pacific and others.

Her professional interactions have also led to interdisciplinary projects with other Canadian researchers which include predicting ice jam floods to prepare for and prevent disaster situations (with U of A professor Faye Hicks), appraising the overall performance of Canadian construction industry from a global perspective, and projects that explore the behaviour of construction personnel on large-scale projects.  Dr. Robinson Fayek’s recommendations bridge planning with performance and encourage better decision-making which could save lives, improve quality, and enhance productivity in Alberta and far beyond.

Dr. Osama Moselhi of Concordia University remembers his recommendation to Dr. Robinson Fayek, and recognizes the perseverance which has earned so much respect: “Keeping Aminah’s impressive research record aside, she is a bright engineer that embraces simplicity, common sense, good judgment, teamwork and a can-do attitude. She, in a remarkable manner and, in my opinion, intuitively –to her credit– has fast-tracked her professional and academic career; working on leading-edge modeling of construction processes using tools and technologies such as fuzzy logic and artificial intelligence while keeping focus on actual issues on the ground that impact labor productivity on construction jobsites.  This allowed her to gain and build her professional experience, in parallel, while working hard on advancing her research program.”

Dr. Robinson Fayek credits the province’s industry for its openness: “The Alberta construction industry is remarkably supportive of research and also very forward-thinking in terms of being willing to listen to the research ideas and being willing to try them, knowing that research can succeed in developing good solutions, and that sometimes we try things and they don’t work. Industry’s very open to that, and they’re also very willing to allow us into their companies and their practices to learn from them.”

As a professor and instructor for many years, Aminah Robinson Fayek’s approach extends to her son Jack, who is also a strong math and science student, and an eager participant in the DiscoverE camps.  “Children love the labs and the classrooms; they’re absolutely fascinated by the facilities. When you expose young children to as many things as possible, it opens their eyes to what the possibilities are. If you don’t expose them they may never know about it in the first place.”

Dr. Robinson Fayek’s students are similarly encouraged toward exposure to as many diverse disciplines and perspectives as possible, to open their minds to the extremely varied interdisciplinary options available in research, and to find their own niche. “It is so nice to see young, bright people develop during the time that they’re here and then go out into industry or academia and watch them grow even further -- if we have even a minor role in that, I think that’s the most rewarding part. You feel proud of the students when they go out and do impressive things. The other very satisfying thing aspect of my job is working with industry – it keeps me motivated and stimulated and gives me new ideas. Those two are the most rewarding aspects of my job.”

Walter Shanly was a highly-regarded engineer who played a major role in developing North American railway system and served as a Member of Parliament in the early days of Canadian confederation.  Clever, honest, opinionated and highly focused, Shanly’s career spanned nearly sixty years and his extraordinary force of character is built into the infrastructure of North America.