Audrey Ryan

Audrey Ryan
Audrey Ryan

Audrey Ryan ’15 has made an amazing race around the world, visiting 15 countries over five months. But this is no reality TV show.

Ryan, 24, of Wilmington, Del., is the first Drexel University student to win a Skidmore, Owings & Merrill Foundation Structural Engineering Travel Fellowship. Awarded since 1998, the competitive program, which is sponsored by the Chicago-based architectural and engineering firm, offers a $20,000 stipend to travel and experience works of architecture.

“It was incredible,” says Ryan, who began her whirlwind tour after graduation, visiting 24 structures in cities across Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Australia/New Zealand and arriving stateside in time for Christmas. “I wanted the chance to explore some fun and exciting new developments in the structural engineering industry.”

This upcoming academic year, she will get another chance to travel and explore. Ryan is a recipient of a prestigious Fulbright U.S. Student Program Grant, one of the 1,900 grant winners among 9,300 applicants. (Three other Drexel students or alum also won this year.) Starting in August[2016], Ryan plans to research and assess energy ecosystems in Nordhavn, a district of Copenhagen, Denmark, that houses a collaborative “living energy” lab.

On the travel fellowship, she explored buildings that mimic nature in form and function. Known as biomimicry, the field seeks to emulate patterns in nature to improve the structures of buildings. Ryan holds a dual degree, earning a bachelor’s in architectural engineering and a master’s in civil engineering with a concentration in structures.

“With the increasing emphasis on sustainability in the built environment,” she writes in a 101-page report she completed as part of the fellowship, “bioinspiration has gained traction as an innovative and meaningful design approach over recent years.” Ryan’s project focused on how ideas from nature are applied to buildings. Many architects copy organic shapes primarily for aesthetic purposes, which is known as biomorphism. Others turn to biomimicry for practical and sustainable reasons.

“There are many examples of popular modern architecture that are lauded as examples of biomimicry purely based on the use of wild curves or other `natural’ aesthetics,” Ryan says in Bioinspiration in Structures. “However, though visually striking, these geometries lack structural functionality. Adopting the form of nature does not necessarily equate to achieving a sustainable relationship to it.”

In her research, Ryan sought out buildings that offer both function and form. One of her favorites was the Eden Project in Cornwall, England, the first place she visited. The vast horticultural complex in the countryside consists of alien-like geodesic domes, which house tropical and Mediterranean biomes. It is considered a foremost example of biologically inspired architecture and perfectly melds functionality with aesthetics, Ryan says.

“It set the bar really high for the rest of my trip,” she says.

Other stops included the modern canopies of the Nordpark Railway Stations in Innsbruck, Austria; the twisting HSB Turning Torso in Malmo, Sweden; the under-construction Masdar City in Abu Dhabi; the spiked-roof Esplanade Theatre in Singapore; and the iconic wave shapes of the Sydney Opera House in Australia.

Along the way, Ryan, who only took a 25-pound backpack with her, had her share of adventures and challenges. She swam with dolphins in New Zealand, white water rafted in Slovenia, and met the son of the Sydney Opera House architect. “I was star struck,” she says of this last encounter.

She also never got a visa for China and had to nix that country from her plans. In Spain, the rail system went on strike. “I had to take a 14-hour bus across the country,” she says. “That was terrible.”

Ryan caught the travel bug when she transferred from Delaware Technical Community College to Drexel and soon decided to study abroad in Galway, Ireland. Before that trip, she had never left the United States or set foot on a plane. “I really freaked out my parents,” she says. The experience gave her confidence. “It taught me a lot more about how to be my own person, an independent adult.”

When she came across the fellowship last year while researching scholarships, she knew this was her chance to travel again, despite the tough odds. Past winners include graduates of MIT, Stanford University and Princeton University.

“I didn’t think I would get it,” she says.

But she did, and so began her trek.

“In addition to seeing all these impressive structures in person, I was able to talk to the designers. These are the people who build the coolest buildings in the world,” says Ryan, who will delay her job hunt until she returns from her Fulbright in 2017.

“The [travel] fellowship had a big impact on my life,” she says. “It reinforced the idea that I can do more. Seeing all these amazing structures makes me want to push the envelope, where you are not just on the cutting edge but helping to sharpen the cutting edge.”

By Lini S. Kadaba