Focus on Faculty: S. Sonny Kim

Sonny Kim teaches studentsSonny Kim, an associate professor in the College of Engineering, engages students by incorporating elements of his research and industry experiences into classroom discussions and activities.

Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?

I earned my bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Inha University in Korea, my master’s degree from Georgia Tech and my Ph.D. from Texas A&M University. Currently I am an associate professor and graduate director of the School of Environmental, Civil, Agricultural and Mechanical Engineering in the College of Engineering. I teach courses in geomechanics and pavement engineering and have primarily done research on pavement materials and structural health monitoring of civil infrastructures using both destructive and nondestructive techniques.

When did you come to UGA and what brought you here?

I came to UGA in January 2016 as an associate professor after working at another institution in the University System of Georgia for eight and half years. The civil engineering program in the College of Engineering is relatively new program at UGA, and I wanted to work in a program that I can grow with and devote my life to. I feel that I am blessed to have the opportunity to work at UGA with great colleagues and excellent students. I love the culture and atmosphere at the UGA College of Engineering, which offers the perfect blend of a liberal arts education and engineering.

What are your favorite courses and why?

My two favorite courses are soil mechanics and pavement design because these topics are aligned with my research areas. My toughest and most fun challenge in teaching is incorporating elements of my research and industry experiences into classroom discussions and exercises. This has had two results. The first is that I see the problem from many different perspectives, which helps me in my research activities. Secondly, my students leave their textbooks for a moment and become much more involved in the materials; often, they research the problem further on their own than I ask for in the assignments. Everyone seems to benefit from moving “real-world” problems into the classroom. I gain insight from my students, and they gain some real engineering experience from these real-world projects.

What are some highlights of your career at UGA?

First of all, it was my honor to be named a 2018-2019 UGA Public Service and Outreach Faculty Fellow at UGA. Through this opportunity, I have been working with the Carl Vinson Institute of Government to implement cutting-edge research that predicts future problems in road networks. Also, I have been elected a Fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers. The distinction of being named an ASCE Fellow acknowledges significant contributions to the civil engineering profession and a career of service to the public. The honor is held by fewer than 3 percent of ASCE’s 150,000 members worldwide. In addition, I was invited to present the keynote address at the First International Conference on Green Sustainable Road Industry in Egypt. At the conference, I shared my experiences and research regarding the sustainable construction of green roads, innovations, concerns, challenges and best practices. It is my unforgettable remembrance to have received at the conference an appreciation plaque from Dr. Essam Sharaf, a former prime minister of Egypt. But, most of all, I am very proud that my students have been awarded various scholarship and fellowship awards, including the ADSC International Association of Foundation Drilling Scholarship, Geosynthetic Institute Fellowship, Deep Foundation Institute Educational Trust Scholarship, UGA College of Engineering Rowan Leadership Scholarship, and the Brahm P. Verma Award for Academic and Leadership Excellence.

How do you describe the scope and impact of your research or scholarship to people outside of your field?

I describe my research to people outside of my field by saying that I monitor the health of civil infrastructure, such as pavement and bridges. Much in the way that doctors care about the health of their patients, I regularly monitor the condition of roads and bridges to avoid a sudden collapse or significant deterioration that is directly related to human safety. Much in the way that doctors try to diagnose their patient’s disease by conducting a CT scan, I use ground penetrating radar to scan the subsurface condition of a roadway and identify the risk factors that could result in damage or collapse. When I explain my work like this, people easily understand what my research is about and how it impacts communities.

How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching, and vice versa?

Teaching and research are tightly linked together. I believe that teaching materials in the field of engineering must include evolving technologies, so study materials should be updated to include the most recent research activities. Therefore, teaching and research cannot be explained separately.

What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?

I would like to motivate students to apply the knowledge and lessons they learned in my class to real-world problems. For example, when students learn soil mechanics, I want them to learn not only theories, but also methods and examples they can apply to real-world problems.

Describe your ideal student.

My ideal student is a good-natured person with strong sense of responsibility. Knowledge can be obtained by striving, but personality cannot be obtained by striving. Students with good character are always prepared to learn and can achieve great milestones in their efforts.

Favorite place to be/thing to do on campus is…

My favorite place is the Main Library, where I enjoy reading books between the shelves. If I had a cup of coffee in my hand, it would be perfect.

Beyond the UGA campus, I like to…

I love to manage my garden with my wife, Hyemin. After planting trees, pruning branches and mowing, I don’t get tired but rather feel liberated from stress. To prevent attacks by deer and rabbits in my garden, I am also developing an “owl” using an unmanned aircraft vehicle with alarm and auto-sensing functions. This device effectively expels deer and rabbits from my garden.

Community/civic involvement includes….

I am participating in the U.S.-Korean Geotechnical Society to exchange research experiences in the field of geotechnical engineering in Korea and the United States. This society helps enhance interaction and networking among researchers in Korea and the U.S. Through this society, I hope to see an active exchange of geotechnical engineering research.

Favorite book/movie (and why)?

My favorite movie is “Forrest Gump.” The main character Forrest Gump seems to live a simple life, but I was able to learn the attitude of living as a Christian in his appearance.

The one UGA experience I will always remember will be…

I cannot forget the experience of my first day of work. I was unfamiliar and awkward, but I cannot forget the joy and gratitude that I felt by going to work at UGA, which is my dream school. The students in class who looked at me with sparkling eyes are still remembered as a picture of memories in my head.

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