U.S. Army Corps structural engineer and grad student honored as 2021 technology leader

Gbandi Nikabou is a structural engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District Civil Design Branch’s Structural Section and a Ph.D. student in civil engineering at Vanderbilt University. (Courtesy Asset)

Structural engineer and Vanderbilt civil engineering Ph.D. student Gbandi Nikabou received a Modern-Day Technology Leader award in February during the 35th Black Engineer of the Year Awards ceremony hosted virtually from Detroit, Michigan.

Nikabou, who works in the Civil Design Branch’s structural section, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District, also is working toward his doctorate in civil engineering at Vanderbilt University.

Stephanie Hill, executive vice president of rotary and mission systems for Lockheed Martin Corporation, and Kendall Harris, provost and vice president of academic affairs at Texas Southern University, hosted the event. Addressing the honorees, Hill encouraged them to “stand up, step up and make the change that can make the difference.”

Nikabou has done just that, overcoming adversity during the past decade. When he arrived in the United States from Togo in west Africa, he didn’t speak English, had no family members he could rely on, and had to work multiple jobs to earn a living while also saving for college.

Despite the challenges, he earned an associate degree from Massachusetts Bay Community College and his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. He received multiple job offers from several Corps districts before choosing the Nashville District in 2017.

“I ended up choosing Nashville after learning about three mega projects,” Nikabou said. “If there is one thing I’ve learned from this journey, it is time management and the sense of responsibility.” Nikabou said he is grateful the opportunity to advance his skills at Vanderbilt and for his civil engineering adviser Sankaran Mahadevan, John R. Murray Sr. Professor of Engineering, whose expertise is in reliability and uncertainty analysis methods, material degradation, structural health monitoring, design optimization, and model uncertainty.

“My main goal with this degree [Ph.D.] is to be able to contribute with an innovative hand to maintain and/or rebuild our already old and crumbling infrastructure, especially in USACE where nearly 75 percent of our locks and dams are more than 50 years old,” he said.

Nashville District commander Lt. Col. Sonny B. Avichal said it is fitting for Nikabou to be recognized. “As a native of Togo, he brings a unique perspective to the missions of the district. His desire to gain more knowledge and give back to his community led him to study engineering in the United States, a passion that still drives him as he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in engineering at Vanderbilt,” Avichal said. “As a civil engineer, he has brought his technical abilities to bear on a wide number of design projects for our region’s navigation and flood damage reduction missions.”

Nikabou is responsible for all structural engineering-related tasks for Cordell Hull Dam in Carthage, Tennessee, as well as four dam projects within the Cumberland River basin in Kentucky. He conducts annual dam safety inspections and instrumentation evaluation as well as periodic inspections of navigation, dam and hydropower facilities.

In addition, he serves as a design engineer for the new Soo Lock in Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, which is managed by the Corp’s Detroit Engineer District. The project is a multi-district design effort for a new 110- by 1,200-foot lock to replace the existing Sabin and Davis locks at Soo Locks on the Great Lakes. The Soo Locks enable ships to travel between Lake Superior and the lower Great Lakes.

Maj. Gen. Robert F. Whittle Jr., U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Great Lakes and Ohio River Division commanding general, endorsed Nikabou’s nomination for the award.

“Mr. Nikabou serves as a key role model, exemplifying excellence in the Nashville District’s structural section,” he said. “A very conscientious and extremely competent individual, he is passionate about bettering himself so that he can be of service to the community.”

This article includes part of an original article by Shelley Byrne that appeared in the Waterways Journal Weekly. Lee Roberts, public affairs specialist for the Nashville Engineer District, contributed to her report.

Contact:  Brenda Ellis, 615 343-6314