When the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai, a submerged volcano in the South Pacific Kingdom of Tonga, erupted last December and, over the course of the following month, sparked tsunamis of all sizes across the world, Erica Treflik-Body recognized the relevance to her research at the Queen’s Coastal Engineering Lab.

Treflik-Body is a PhD student in Civil Engineering with a focus on Coastal and Geotechnical Engineering who spends nearly half her time at the largest hydraulics laboratory in Canada, located on West Campus in Kingston.

“When rocks or debris fall into water,” she says, “a coastal slope failure forms and I’m interested in capturing the size of the wave generated by them.” Failure is defined as a rapid movement of material, that displaces the water level and generates a wave through the momentum transfer.

“I’m looking at different coastal slope failures, such as underwater landslides and shoreline collapses, and then exploring how they're triggered, what causes them, and the waves formed by them. I'm doing this with large scale testing, where I simulate these different types of failures in the landslide flume to explore their behaviors under controlled settings.”

Treflik-Body was recently announced the recipient of the 2022 Claudette MacKay-Lassonde Graduate Award from the Canadian Engineering Memorial Foundation. The $15,000 award is granted to a woman studying engineering full-time at the PhD level who has demonstrated they are leaders, ambassadors for the profession, and serve as role models for other women who dream of becoming engineers.

“I am honoured to receive the Claudette Mackay-Lassonde graduate award from the Canadian Engineering Memorial Foundation this year,” she says. “I’ve worked hard to put myself in leadership positions within my community to make space and be a role model for women in Engineering. I am thrilled to be involved with a foundation that stands for gender equality and diversity in STEM and the support I have received allows me to promote these principles within my community and further enrich my studies.”

A graduate of Civil Engineering at Queen’s in 2019, she immediately embarked upon master’s level research which transformed into PhD study just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the social distancing measures of that time prevented the usual team of assistants to support such large-scale experiments, she was able to trade work tasks with other graduate students when either one required shoveling large masses of sand in preparation for coastal slope failure simulations.

“In the landslide flume,” she says, “I designed a tilt table, where I can place material and rotate it. And as we rotate it, we decrease its stability, and it can generate a failure. At that scale, I'm specifically looking at what happens when these failures are triggered. With a number of sensors I’m looking at what's going on within the soil as it's failing underwater.”

“Another experiment that I conducted,” she says, “was looking at the waves formed from a granular collapse. I had a pile of gravel behind this rapid release gate, another mechanism that my colleague and I worked on. This 600-pound aluminum gate can lift upward in less than a second. We place material behind it, under different levels of water, and then released the gate to see how the gravel failed, and then how that formed a wave. We know a lot about the waves formed in the direction of failure, but when you have failures under water, there's actually two waves formed, one that goes towards the shore and one that goes towards the sea. Not a lot of people have done that work before. On such a big scale.”

The spark that triggered an interest in graduate studies came just before her third year as a Civil Engineering student. “The summer before third year,” she says, “I worked as a research assistant in this lab and the adjacent lab. And I thought it was awesome, the experiments they were doing. I didn't really know that much about coastal engineering then, and after asking some grad students about what they were doing and researching, I was very interested to be part of that community in terms of civil engineering and coastal engineering.”

Treflik-Body foresees a career upon earning her PhD beyond academia, one that can entail anything from consultant work on remediation projects, port and harbour designs, to offshore oil platforms designs. “My research is very, very niche, but the skillset and the theories that I've accumulated through my courses and applying to my own research gives me a great toolbox to consult on a variety of different projects.”

In the meantime, between TA work and maintaining an office at Ellis Hall where she processes the data collected at the Coastal Engineering Lab, Treflik-Body continues work on the simulations and earning her place in this community.

“I'm hoping to better understand these coastal failures to help people avoid them, “she says. “And I'm developing empirical relationships to try to predict the size of the waves formed by them. Physical models are a great benchmarking tool for numerical models, so these relationships that I'm forming empirically within a lab can help people who are trying to simulate them on the computer.”