The Alumnae Series aims to create a diverse collection of experiences at Tufts through highlighting notable alumnae.
The Daily spoke with Jim Kaklamanos, who is a triple Jumbo, having received his bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and doctorate from the School of Engineering in 2008, 2010 and 2012, respectively. Kaklamanos is currently an associate professor at Merrimack College and is one of the American Society of Civil Engineers 2017 New Faces of Engineering.
The Tufts Daily (TD): What was your trajectory through Tufts?
Jim Kaklamanos (JK): I’m a triple Jumbo, which means I came to Tufts and decided I never wanted to leave. I started at Tufts in fall of 2004 and started in the School of Liberal Arts & Sciences. Ultimately, I majored in civil engineering. I graduated in 2008 with my bachelors and then stayed for my master’s in civil and environmental engineering and stayed for a Ph.D. after that. I went straight through.
TD: Did you come into Tufts knowing what you wanted to study and what path you wanted to take?
JK: I took a very nonlinear path to finding what really made me passionate in life and what I really wanted to do as a profession. I started in the School of Liberal Arts & Sciences and I initially wanted to go to law school. I wanted to get my undergraduate degree, then take the LSAT. That’s kind of what I thought I was going to do. So when I came to Tufts, I didn’t really know what engineering was. One of the reasons why I picked Tufts was that I liked the integration of engineering and liberal arts that a lot of colleges didn’t have. The option was there.
TD: Why did you choose to major in civil engineering?
JK: What really led me to civil engineering in particular was that in my freshman year and my sophomore year, there were two major natural disasters that happened. One, in December of 2004, was the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, which devastated a huge area and killed hundreds of thousands of people. And in the fall of my sophomore year, Hurricane Katrina happened. Those two events really made me think about how can we try to prevent loss of life in extreme events. So that kind of drew me towards civil engineering because it really deals with infrastructure and the environment. Natural disasters can’t be prevented but it’s the role of engineers to design systems that can stand natural disasters and protect people. So those two events really changed my perspective.
I became more interested in engineering. Though I still wasn’t totally sure for a career, I was sure for my major at least. So I switched into civil engineering my freshman year and went along with the degree. I still was keeping my options open, so I took the LSAT and prepared for law school. I was taking prep classes at Merrimack and little did I know that seven years later, I would return as a professor. But I started to get more interested in civil engineering, and in the particular the field of geotechnical engineering dealing with earth materials and how to interact with the environment. For example, the levy system that failed in Hurricane Katrina was a failure of earth materials. So senior year rolls around and I’m still not really sure what I want to do, so I decided to postpone the decision and stay for a master’s. I loved Tufts, the opportunity came up and I figured, all right, that’s what I’m going to do. When I started I never thought I’d end up going into a Ph.D.
TD: What changes did you experience in the engineering department and what changes do you see today?
JK: When I started at Tufts, engineering was really moving forward in a lot of ways. In particular, the undergraduate program had always been very strong, but there was a lot of growth on the graduate side. The growth in the School of Engineering in that regard, both for faculty and programs, really led to a lot more opportunities, especially to work together. One thing that I think makes Tufts different from other institutions is that the programs are close-knit. As a student getting my master’s, I got to work with faculty and other students in my group. Engineering has always been strong and I see it getting stronger every year.
TD: What were some extracurriculars you were involved in at Tufts?
JK: As an undergrad, I was an executive orientation leader my sophomore, junior and senior years. During fall orientation for the incoming first-year class, I helped those student transition to their time at Tufts. I was part of a group of leaders who helped train other orientation leaders. I was also very heavily involved in Tufts’ chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) — I was president my senior year. As a graduate student, I remained involved by being a graduate advisor to the Tufts ASCE chapter.
TD: What is one particularly memorable experience from your time at Tufts?
JK: One of the most memorable events that happened to me at Tufts was the fall of my junior year. My group of friends were doing different pranks on each other. They would do things to people’s rooms. For one guy, they transposed his room 180 degrees, so everything that was on one side was on the other. For someone else, who lived in Hillsides, there was an empty room in their suite and they took everything from his room and put it in the empty room. At that time, I lived in a single room in Carmichael. I thought that there was no way they were going to get me. When I wasn’t there, my room was locked. They asked if that was a dare and I said they wouldn’t be able to do it but they could try. Long story short, they wound up getting into my room and filled my entire room with crumpled Tufts Daily [newspapers]. They collected newspapers for the entire fall semester and found a way to get into my room. Wall to wall, floor to ceiling. Never underestimate the power of a small number of people with a lot of time on their times. We still had fun back in the 2000s.
TD: What path did you take after you received a doctorate from Tufts?
JK: I got lucky right after I finished my Ph.D. as I was able to land a tenure track position at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass. Merrimack is a predominantly undergraduate institution with a big focus on teaching, but I still do research and interact in the scholarly community. I’m a member of the Department of Civil Engineering and I’m the primary faculty member in geotechnical engineering. I teach a wide range of courses in the department and I try to engage my students in undergraduate research.
TD: How did you realize that you wanted to teach as a profession?
JK: During my master’s degree, I had the chance to do two really important things. One, I was a teaching assistant for the introductory engineering course that all the first year engineering students have to take, and two, I started a research project on earthquake engineering. I decided I really liked teaching and research and I realized I wanted to be a professor.
TD: What is one rewarding aspect of your current work?
JK: One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is when I’m able to make different concepts click in my students’ minds to help them realize their passions. When I was a student at Tufts, I was really fortunate to have had some really outstanding professors and mentors who really cared about me and offered advice. Now, as a professor myself, I have the opportunity to pay it forward.
TD: What does your research in geotechnical engineering involve?
JK: So the research that I do involves trying to predict the level of ground shaking during earthquakes. Earthquakes generate seismic waves that travel through the ground, causing buildings to shake. But as they travel, they undergo a lot of changes really close to the surface. The soils and rocks that are at a particular site could really change the level of shaking. So what I do is work on models that try to predict the influence that near surface geological materials are going to have on earthquakes. Our goal is to develop methods that can predict hazards that are experienced. It’s a very interdisciplinary field and that’s part of why I love it. I get to work with not just engineers but also geologists, statisticians, economists, etc. There’s a lot of uncertainty in this research and that’s what makes it interesting.
TD: What is one piece of advice you have for incoming first-years?
JK: I would say for incoming first-years, keep an open mind. Coming in, you might think that you know what you want to study, what you want to do for your career, but keep an open mind and you may realize that you have a passion in an area you could have never predicted. Really get to know the faculty and staff and your fellow students. The more people who are able to serve as a mentor to you, the more you’re going to realize what you’re going to want to do in life.
TD: What is one piece of advice you have for graduating seniors?
JK: For graduating seniors, I’d say a lot of it is the same thing. Keeping an open mind. Talk to people. Whenever I came to a juncture in my career, whether it’s deciding the stay at Tufts for a Ph.D. or whether I started applying to academic positions, I’d seek out a handful of professors and others at Tufts and ask their perspective. The more perspectives that I would get, the more it’d help me to make a decision. In terms of grad school, life has a way of working itself out and you’ll oftentimes know the right decision because you’ll feel it in your gut. It’s good to question things and to think about all different possible paths, but oftentimes, you’ll just know.
This article has been edited for length and clarity.