Tech engineering professor named to NAS
By Liz Crumbley
Spectrum Volume 20 Issue 31 - May 21, 1998
University Distinguished Professor James K. Mitchell of the Via Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in recognition of his original research contributions to the field of geotechnical engineering.
The NAS was created in 1863 by congressional charter as an advisory body for the government on questions of science and technology, and election to its membership is one of the highest honors accorded U.S. scientists and engineers. Mitchell is one of only 60 new members elected on April 28 during the 135th annual meeting of the academy in Washington, D.C.
Mitchell, who was elected a member of the National Academy of Engineering in 1976, joined the Virginia Tech faculty in 1994 as the first Charles E. Via Jr. professor of civil engineering. He came to Tech from the University of California at Berkeley, where he held an endowed chair and conducted research in both the Institute of Transportation Studies and the Earthquake Engineering Research Center. Mitchell had been on the Berkeley faculty since 1958, after receiving his Sc.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1956 and serving on active duty in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Much of his research has focused on fundamental aspects of the engineering properties and behavior of soils and the development of understanding based on compositional and physical and chemical interactions of soil particles. This research, conducted several years ago, recently has found wide applications in the field of environmental geotechnics, which deals with waste containment and contaminated-site remediation.
During the 1960s and early 1970s, Mitchell conducted extensive research on lunar soils and soil properties during the Apollo Lunar Exploration Program and served as principal investigator for the Soil Mechanics Experiment, which was part of the Apollo 14-17 missions.
Mitchell also has worked extensively on soil stabilization and ground strengthening, and these studies have been used to mitigate ground-failure risk during earthquakes. He participated in post-earthquake reconnaissance and ground-performance studies following the major earthquakes in San Francisco in 1989 and Kobe, Japan in 1994.
In 1997, he and two other Virginia Tech engineering faculty members were named part of a national team, working through the National Center for Earthquake Engineering Research at the State University of New York at Buffalo, that received a five-year, $10 million grant from the National Science Foundation to find ways to minimize earthquake damage and losses in the U.S.
Mitchell, along with engineers at Cornell University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, will study the use of new soil-strengthening techniques and strategies to help prevent earthquake-induced liquefaction and lateral spreading of the ground.
Among the more than 300 publications resulting from Mitchell's research are two editions of his graduate-level text and reference book, Fundamentals of Soil Behavior, which has become a standard geotechnical course reference nationwide.
Among the numerous honors Mitchell has received are the Norman Medal, the highest honor for a published paper accorded by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE); the Karl Terzaghi Lecture and Award from ASCE; the Western Electric Fund Award of the American Society for Engineering Education; the Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration; the Berkeley Citation from the University of California; and appointment in 1996 as a university distinguished professor by the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors. He is a fellow and honorary member of ASCE and a former chairman of the Geotechnical Board of the U.S. National Research Council.