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Case Study: Out of the rubble - building the future from the tragedy of Amatrice

PhD student Valentina Putrino with Maureen Amar, Richard Jenkins and Professor Dina D'Ayala at the UCL Scholarships and Bursaries Reception

On 23 August 2016, a devastating 6.2 magnitude earthquake struck central Italy, all but destroying the ancient town of Amatrice. “I have never seen so much damage in one place” says Valentina Putrino, a UCL PhD student who formed part of the Earthquake Engineering Field Investigation Team (EEFIT) despatched to the region following the quake.

A UK based group of earthquake engineers, architects and academics, EEFIT brings together a range of expertise in earthquake prone countries to organise reconnaissance missions. It aims to manage and reduce disaster risk by understanding damage at different levels, ranging from finding out how the earthquake formed to the impact of damage to critical infrastructure and the social consequences for local people.

Amatrice following the earthquake. Credit: EEFIT

Reflecting on the mission in Amatrice, Valentina says that while the experience was one of the most shocking of her career, it was also one of the most valuable. “There is no substitute for being on site and seeing the situation first hand”, she notes. As a PhD student focusing on the impact of natural hazards on historic buildings, this exposure to real life situations has formed a vital part of her research at UCL. “This vital experience in the field enables us to learn from the tragedy of Amatrice and improve our understanding of how buildings and other structures behave in this sort of situation. We can then use our research to develop better and safer design practices and regulations, which could ultimately save lives”.

Having studied architecture in her native Sicily, Valentina went on to complete the MSc Earthquake Engineering with Disaster Management at UCL in 2015. “The biggest dream I had was to study at UCL and to continue my studies to PhD level”, she explains, “But I couldn’t afford to fund it on my own. I was incredibly lucky to be awarded The Maurice Franses Memorial Scholarship, which made my aspirations possible.” The scholarship which is funded by the Amar-Franses & Foster-Jenkins Trust, set up by Maureen Amar and Richard Jenkins, provides £10,000 a year to a UCL PhD student in the field of Structural Engineering. It is named in memory of Maureen’s uncle, Maurice Franses, who was a civil engineer.

“I will always be grateful to Richard and Maureen”, comments Valentina. “Life has taught me to always express gratitude to the people and circumstances that make a real difference. Be loud in saying it, with no fear or shame. Feel proud of what you have received, because there is a reason if you have received it instead of others. Get the most from their investment (because it is an investment) and always make those people aware of how much they have improved your life.”

Valentina’s supervisor, Professor Dina D'Ayala of UCL Civil, Environmental & Geomatic Engineering, emphasises the challenge of finding PhD funding.  “Private sponsors are not common in the UK and resources from the Research Council are quite limited, so finding an alternative source of funding is very important", she notes. “Furthermore, in the countries where earthquakes happen, it is often very difficult to find the funds to do this important research”.  

Looking to the future, Valentina hopes to apply her knowledge to prevent the sort of destruction she witnessed in Amatrice. She describes her experiences at UCL as “transformational – I feel like the luckiest person in the world!”

“Studying in this beautiful and diverse city has been an incredible opportunity for me and the friends and colleagues I have made here have become like family. In particular, my supervisor Professor D’Ayala has been a source of endless support and guidance. I would recommend UCL to anyone.”

Find out more about the EEFIT mission to Amatrice: https://eefitamatrice.wordpress.com/