About Senol Utku

Senol Utku was a professor of civil engineering at Duke University for more than 30 years. His forward-thinking research advanced the multi-faceted intersections of computers and structural systems

Senol Utku

He was a renowned and prolific researcher, as well as an inspirational mentor to younger Duke CEE faculty. Upon his retirement in 2002, Duke CEE faculty and staff honored Utku by naming a set of annual awards that recognizes the best peer-reviewed journal papers authored by the department's PhD students.

“The role of engineering education as a profession designed to improve humanity’s condition was thematic to Senol's professional life,” said Henri Gavin, the W.H. Gardner, Jr. Chair of Duke CEE. “He valued sharing the spark of new ideas, and prioritized student learning above everything.”

Senol Utku died on May 29, 2022, at the age of 90.

Utku's work focused on solving problems related to pre-loaded structures, such as suspension bridges and spacecraft, and investigated new ways to design systems capable of enduring extreme environmental conditions such as high winds and strong earthquakes. As computing power expanded rapidly in the 1970s and 1980s, Utku was among the first researchers to imagine how multiple computers could be harnessed to solve complex engineering problems.

Utku was a leading thinker on the topic of computer-based feedback systems for adaptive structures—complex constructions which can adapt their behavior to changing conditions, such as a large parabolic antenna that can alter its shape to counter strong winds and thereby maintain performance.

“He valued sharing the spark of new ideas, and prioritized student learning above everything.”

HENRI GAVIN | W.H. Gardner, Jr. Chair

His landmark 1998 book Theory of Adaptive Structures: Incorporating Intelligence into Engineered Products, discussed in detail how increasingly sophisticated sensors, actuators and microprocessors might be applied to control structural systems.

Utku, a native of Turkey, graduated from Istanbul Technical University in 1954. He earned a Doctor of Science (Sc.D.) from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1960.

After assignments with Middle East Technical University and Istanbul Technical University, he returned to the United States in 1965 as a senior research engineer with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He joined Duke in 1970. By 1979, he was a full professor in the then-Department of Civil Engineering, with a secondary faculty appointment in Computer Science.

While at Duke, Utku advised more than 10 PhD dissertations. He served as his department's director of undergraduate studies for seven years, and then director of graduate studies for three years. Over his career, he taught some of the university’s earliest courses in computational engineering.

Utku was a fellow in the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and the author of nine books—including co-authorship of the fourth edition of the classic Elementary Structural Analysis which has educated generations of structural engineers. Utku also published over 60 peer-reviewed journal articles.

Utku’s theories were inspired and motivated by thoughts of helpful and practical applications.

“I will always remember him saying that ‘natural events should not be natural disasters.’ He was very much aware of the power of earthquakes and the damage they can cause, especially in Turkey,” said John Dolbow, a professor of engineering at Duke and an expert in computational mechanics. "I think that saying summarized his approach to engineering—which was that we ought to look to deploy control strategies to keep the events that we cannot control from becoming catastrophic.”

The Utku Annual Awards