Vanier winner wants to safeguard dams

GRADING FAILURE: Elena Zabolotnii is studying a failed dam to prevent similar incidents in the future.

(EDMONTON)  Elena Zabolotnii, a PhD student in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is one of two recipients Faculty of Engineering recipients of the prestigious Vanier Canada Scholarship. The award recognizes academic excellent and leadership, and is valued at $150,000 over three years. 

Working under the supervision of civil engineering professor Ward Wilson, an international expert in mine tailings ponds, Zabolotnii is researching the catastrophic failure of a mining dam. 

Q: Can you briefly describe your research?

A: I’m investigating the Mount Polley Tailings Storage Facility failure of August 2014. I’m specifically interested in the failure mechanism and the soil strength at failure.

Q: What impact could your research findings have?

A: My work is part of a greater effort by the geotechnical research community here in Canada and elsewhere to ensure that dams and similar structures do not fail in the future. It is our part to play in protecting people and the planet.

Q: You already were working as an engineer but chose to come back to school—why? What do you hope to gain from this experience?

A: I worked as a consulting engineer and enjoyed doing that. However, I’m never content with just doing my job as per description: it’s in my nature to always get to the bottom of things, to understand what is ticking inside. I ended up turning a number of my projects into research opportunities.

I decided the best strategy to have an interesting, fulfilling life is to do graduate studies. A PhD opens up a lot of opportunities—to partake in cutting-edge research, in nation-building projects; to be the designer, not just follow the design. When I’m old and look back at my life, I want to be able to say that I was part of something that matters.

I’d also like to teach. We tend to somewhat undervalue teachers, whether they are school teachers or university professors. They are far more critical to the health of society than we give them credit for.

Q: What does it mean to you to be awarded the Vanier Scholarship?

A: It goes without saying that the Vanier scholarship gives me the financial means to fully focus on research. Being a graduate student can be financially challenging, and it is common to take on side jobs to earn enough money. Doing so can have devastating effects on one's ability to research and think creatively. I’m fortunate to be able to fully immerse myself in my research. It will make a difference in the quality of my work, I am sure of that.

However, being a Vanier scholar is much more than just being awarded money. It’s a vote of confidence in one’s work and ability. The Vanier scholarship is designed to attract world-class researchers to Canadian universities; it is a part of a national strategy to build Canadian science and innovation. Being part of this process is, frankly, very humbling to me.