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Making a Difference

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Tom Brahms

David Gutierrez overcame a few obstacles along his academic journey, and now he’s helping future drivers safely avoid roadside obstacles through his research at the University of Nebraska?Lincoln (UNL).


Gutierrez, a first-year graduate student in civil engineering, studies at UNL under his adviser, Dr. Ron Faller of the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility. As a graduate assistant, Gutierrez creates simulations to test roadside safety equipment systems.


One of the systems he studies is the guardrail system, a series of protections often made of large steel barriers along a roadside. Gutierrez explained that engineers will only install guardrails to protect roadway users from unintentionally colliding with dangerous obstacles.


He said, “If something is hazardous behind there [the guardrail]?let’s say a tree or a ditch or a pond?what those guardrails are meant to do is protect the occupants in a vehicle if they hit it.”


Gutierrez runs computer programs that simulate what could happen during the interaction between vehicles and systems such as guardrails. For instance, he can use software to visualize what might happen if a truck were to leave a highway and collide with a guardrail that curves along a river.


And Gutierrez is in good company. Guardrails developed in the Midwest have been installed in all 50 states, and have even been used by NASCAR and the Indy Racing League.


These innovative guardrail designs prevent an estimated 150 fatalities on the roads each year by absorbing the energy created during an impact between a vehicle and a barrier.


While Gutierrez said he is very happy with his current path in transportation and structural engineering, he wasn’t always so sure of what he wanted to do.


“It took a while for me to realize my strong suits,” he said. “I tried other things.”


Before transferring to UNL, Gutierrez studied business and political science at another school out of state.


“I was like a lot of high school kids in that I didn’t realize what I wanted to do right away,” he said.


With a natural passion for math and science, Gutierrez said he dove into engineering to get back to those skills. Now, graduate school keeps him busy. Between developing his simulations and taking classes, he said he appreciates that his research and his homework often relate to each other.


“You’re learning a lot from class, which you’re applying at work. And you’re learning from work, which you can apply in class,” he said. “They work together to help each other.”

Continuing on with his education, Gutierrez said he wasn’t sure what the future holds, but that one of his dreams has always been to become an executive of a company. In transportation, he says, the sky’s the limit.


“You’re essentially guaranteeing yourself a job,” he said. “There’s an infinite supply of things to do in transportation.”


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