Joe Saunders ’21G Joins ATLSS as Associate Director of Operations

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Joe Saunders ’21G Joins ATLSS as Associate Director of Operations

After two years with the Navy’s NSWC Carderock Division, Saunders Returns to Lehigh to head the operations of the ATLSS Engineering Research Center on Mountaintop Campus.


On Monday, April 10, Dr. Joe Saunders (Ph.D., structural engineering) joined Lehigh University’s Advanced Technology for Large Structural Systems (ATLSS) Engineering Research Center as its Associate Director of Operations. He replaces former ATLSS Administrative Director Chad Kusko, Ph.D., who remains at Lehigh as Director of Operations for Lehigh’s Institute for Cyber Physical Infrastructure & Energy (I-CPIE). Kusko says, “We are fortunate to bring Joe back to ATLSS in his new role. He brings a wealth of engineering experience, including stints at public agencies and private engineering firms.  In addition to his most recent experience at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock Division, Joe previously spent several years at ATLSS as a graduate research assistant.”

Dr. Saunders is responsible for the operational management of ATLSS, along with Lehigh’s National Science Foundation funded Natural Hazards for Engineering Research Infrastructure (NHERI) experimental facility, and he will also provide project management for various ATLSS and Fritz Laboratory testing and/or field monitoring projects for academic, private, or public researchers. He also supervises most ATLSS personnel. 

A native of the Bronx, New York, Saunders attended Manhattan College for his undergraduate and master’s degrees, both in civil engineering. After a few years working in industry, he came to Lehigh in 2015, ultimately graduating in 2021 with a dissertation titled “Fatigue Assessment of Steel Plate Cut-outs using a Local Nominal Stress with Application to Slit RFB Connections.” After a friend recommended that he apply for a job with the Navy, Saunders became a structural engineer and product manager at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock Division, in Bethesda, Maryland. There, he conducted work similar to his graduate studies: large-scale structural testing, mostly in the fatigue of steel structures. 

Saunders says his time with the Navy taught him many of the administrative skills he brings to ATLSS, particularly those focused on structural and procedural requirements. After about a month into his new position, Saunders notes that his daily routine involves problem-solving for administrative issues such as scheduling, as well as working out various testing issues. In addition to those administrative changes, Saunders also hopes to increase outreach, bringing more interesting and intellectually challenging work to ATLSS for both staff and students. And ATLSS will continue to serve as a test lab for Lehigh-based projects. One project Saunders notes in particular is research into floating offshore wind being conducted by Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Muhannad Suleiman, Ph.D. This project presents many complex engineering problems that need testing and provides the lab with the chance to work toward a cleaner environment. 

ATLSS, Saunders says, is “all about trying to make structures that people interact with, drive on, safer. It’s pushing boundaries of structural engineering to accomplish that task.”


About ATLSS: A national center for research and education on structures and materials of the infrastructure, ATLSS was established in May 1986 under the direction of emeritus faculty John W. Fisher, Ph.D., P.E., with a grant as part of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Engineering Research Center (ERC) program, the Center now addresses the research goals of the NSF, the United States Department of Transportation, the United States Department of Defense, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and numerous additional national, state, and local industry and government organizations and agencies. Significant research has been performed to develop data on fatigue resistance, fracture resistance, strength evaluation of various components and configurations, proof testing, design verification, high performance materials, and product evaluation for a wide variety of transportation structures.

About NHERI: The Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure (NHERI) Lehigh Experimental Facility (EF), funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), is a world-class, open-access facility that enables researchers to address key research questions associated with the challenge of community resilience to natural hazards. The NHERI Lehigh EF has a unique portfolio of equipment, instrumentation, infrastructure, testbeds, experimental simulation control protocols, large-scale simulation and testing experience along with know-how that does not exist elsewhere in the United States. The unique strength of the NHERI Lehigh EF is accurate, large-scale, multi-degree-of-freedom and multi-directional simulations of the effects of natural hazard events on civil infrastructure systems (i.e., buildings, bridges, industrial facilities, etc.) with potential soil-foundation effects.