Okafor’s Doctoral Research on a Firm Foundation

Graduate Research Profile

Chukwuma Okafor

Chukwuma Okafor

It’s ironic that Chukwuma Okafor’s doctoral research at Auburn has centered on mechanically stabilized earth (MSE) technology used primarily in retaining walls, since the Nigeria native has had to overcome quite a few obstacles himself on his way to becoming a Ph.D. student in the Auburn Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

As a child, his family fled their home and spent time in a refugee camp due to violent religious conflict. He eventually was able to return to school, where he developed a fascination with electricity and circuits, but found them a shocking experience that focused his attention elsewhere.

“It’s funny, but I got electrocuted a number of times,” he recalled. “I can’t tell if that was why, but during secondary school my interest shifted towards buildings. I looked at a lot of building drawings and started drawing construction plans. Later, I started making building models with cardboard and glue.”

Chukwuma uses machines to analyze a wall

That childhood interest eventually led Okafor to an apprenticeship with an architectural firm in Nigeria, where he learned draftsmanship, a skill that helped pay his way through college. But his interest shifted again, from architecture to civil engineering. “By the time I finished the program, I knew enough about architecture, but little about structural design. I decided to study civil engineering and focus on structural and geotechnical engineering.”

After earning his undergraduate degree, Okafor was employed by a construction company in Nigeria but wanted to further his education with a graduate degree. He eventually became a Presidential Graduate Research Fellow at Auburn, where he soon felt right at home. “The first time I took a walk from my apartment to Toomer’s Corner, almost everyone I met had a cheerful smile for me. I wasn’t used to it, and at first didn’t know how to respond. I had only been to New York and New Jersey, where everything was hectic.”

A computer generated image of a wall analysis

After learning to smile back and settling into the graduate program, Okafor joined Dr. J. Brian Anderson’s research team studying MSE wall technology, a combination of soil and tensile reinforcement to efficiently achieve grade separation requirements, often used in retaining walls in highway infrastructure. The research is supported by the Alabama Department of Transportation, with contributing partners The Reinforced Earth Company and Vulcan Materials Company.

Okafor says the experience he has gained at Auburn and as part of the research team has been invaluable for his future. “My research group has contributed to a wonderful experience. I went straight from the undergraduate level to the Ph.D. program, so I really did not have much experience with graduate school. But I wasn’t given any overwhelming tasks right away. I sort of grew into the group while learning the skills I needed to succeed.”

And following his graduation in spring 2024, his plan is to stay in the South. “I enjoy both teaching and research as well as field work and building things, and I have had the chance to collaborate with a couple of companies while in the program. My experience with them has been favorable, so hopefully there will be opportunities to do some interesting field and research-related work as well,” Okafor said.