Meet our CivMin summer student: Haobo Zhao

Undergrad summer student research positions explored

The following is part of a series introducing CivMin’s undergraduate summer students to the Department and our greater community.

We explore the students’ projects, motivation and challenges, while providing insights into who they are, and what motivates them, beyond academia. It also highlights the multitude of ways summer research opportunities are approached and implemented under the guidance of  our industry-leading CivMin professors.


Professor Mason Ghafghazi (left) and Haobo Zhao (right) in the Mechanics and Geotechnical Lab in front of the chamber used for testing mine tailings (Photo by Rachael Gallant, CivMin)


This summer, Haobo Zhao (CivE, Year 4) will be exploring the mine tailings problem and how to predict when mine tailing mountains might fail, under the supervision of Professor Mason Ghafghazi. Working in the Mechanics and Geotechnical Lab, Haobo is assisting Lizhi Qi (PhD candidate) with a number of tests to assess the strength of mine tailings. This work is contributing to the larger body of knowledge related to preventing the liquefaction of mine tailing mountains.


Tell us a bit about yourself.   

Haobo Zhao: I’m in Civil Engineering and I’m going into my fourth year. I just finished my PEY Co-op this May. This summer, I’m working full-time as a research student in Prof. Ghafghazi’s research lab. I‘m originally from China, and moved to Toronto in 2014. 


What will be your role this summer and where? What types of tasks and work will you be doing? What’s the research goal? 

Haobo: I’m working in the Mechanics and Geotechnical Lab. My main job is to assist Lizhi Qi [PhD candidate] with his PhD project. We’re working with mine tailings from a gold mine, which we move into a big chamber and test by applying pressure*. We have a cone we use for cone penetration tests (CPT), which we push into the chamber to record resistance data. We also have a trigger, which is a small vibrating machine, and accelerometers, which are sensors to catch sound waves generated by the trigger. I really enjoy working in this lab, especially with Prof. Ghafghazi and my PhD colleagues. I’m considering pursuing a PhD upon the completion of my bachelor’s degree.  


*Technical background provided by Professor Mason Ghafghazi: To extract metals from the ground, a significant amount of rock must be dug up. To get to these metals, the rock is first crushed into a powder. Only between one out of 1000 and one out of 100, by mass, of the rock dug out of the ground gets processed further for the extraction of elements. Almost everything else ends up as this fine powder, called mine tailings. These mine tailings are often toxic fine powder and become mountains of mixture between 200 and 300 metres tall, spanning kilometres.  

These ‘mountains’ have been failing because of a phenomenon called liquefaction, when a solid turns into liquid. This mixture of water and soil starts to flow, resulting in significant environmental damage and, often, loss of life. We don’t fully know how to engineer these mine tailing mountains. Our project is focused on determining how strong this mixture of powder and water is so we can predict when the mine tailing mountains will fail and fix them before liquefaction.  

There are two ways we determine how strong the mine tailings are. The first is by pushing something into the material and measuring how much resistance is received. We use the cone penetration test to measure this resistance. The second way to determine strength is by assessing stiffness. We create a buzzing sound and listen for it with a device called an accelerometer, which calculates the velocity of wave travel and correlates it with how stiff the material is. Sound travels faster through stiffer materials. 


I want to try all the fields in Civil Engineering.


What motivated you to work with Prof. Ghafghazi on this project? 

Haobo: Last year, I was doing my PEY Co-op job but still had a lot of free time. So, I explored research at U of T. I had just begun searching for research opportunities when I received an email from Prof. Ghafghazi about him wanting a part-time student for his lab. I’ve been working in the lab since then.  

I’m a person who really enjoys thinking through problems. I also love learning new things. I want to try all the fields in Civil Engineering. As I previously mentioned, I’m also interested in becoming a PhD student, so getting research experience is a good opportunity. I hope to one day become a professor or teacher and provide education to students with less access to higher education.  


What do you foresee being your greatest challenge? 

Haobo: We’ve had some technical challenges. Our accelerometers haven’t been working, so we tested each step to determine where the technical issue was originatingWe detached all the wires from the trigger, re-attached them and tried again. We did it multiple times and the problem was still there. Then, we realized the delay switch was the problem. Once we fixed the delay switch, the problem was solved.  


Have you found any favourite spots on campus? 

Haobo: Dear Saigon, the restaurant on College Street, serves good pho.  


Do you have any interesting hobbies or talents you’d like to share?   

Haobo: After I finish work, I often play basketball at my friend’s apartment. His building has a court on a large rooftop balcony, surrounded by really tall nets.  


Haobo Zhao in the Mechanics and Geotechnical Lab (Photo by Rachael Gallant, CivMin)

Questions for Prof. Ghafghazi: 


Research is about problem-solving.


What do you hope for Haobo to achieve this summer? Any major takeaways? 

Professor Mason Ghafghazi: My hope for summer students is for them to gain a good understanding of research. Research is about problem-solving. Whether they end up as researchers in their careers, or not, learning how to solve problems will serve them well wherever they end up. It’s about tackling problems you haven’t faced before. In courses, you have very defined problems and you’re taught how to solve them. Research is all about the random problems with no clear solutions.  The best takeaway for students is to understand how to tackle those problems with research. 

My second hope is for the students to like geotechnical engineering. I’d be very happy if they end up in geotechnical engineering. We’ve been pretty successful with that. It’s a very good field for jobs and a lot of our summer students have ended up working for geotechnical companies. And if they end up coming back and continuing as a master’s student in my research group, that’s the slam dunk.


How will Haobo be contributing to this project/your research? 

Prof. Ghafghazi: Haobo’s contributing in a very major way. We do a lot of lab testing, and a lot of these tests need more than one person to conduct. The major test Haobo’s doing is a two-person job, at least. Sometimes, we have three people on it. Graduate students often need a second person to help them full-time. That’s why we like to get undergraduate students during the summer. If we manage to get them during the semester, even better. They’re absolutely vital to some of our work. With other work, it’s a matter of accelerating things and catching up with work. 

One thing I push really hard for the students is making sure they’re not pigeonholed into one task. I try to push them to learn everything they can about what’s around them, to understand why we’re doing these things and to grasp the industry application. It can be challenging because everyone likes to stay in their comfort zone, to stick with what they’re good at. We definitely need the students and I hope it’s beneficial for them too.  


Is there a specific name for the chamber you’re using for testing? 

Prof. Ghafghazi: No, but it has an interesting history. This chamber was made in the 1980s in Calgary at a consulting firm. They were doing offshore platforms in the Arctic. That’s why they built this. It’s one of the first chambers that did this type of strength testing. The main line of theory that whole part of engineering works on came out of this very chamber. And the person who started it was on my PhD committee. The chamber eventually went out of use, and was just sitting there. When I got here, we put it on a truck, brought it to U of T and built a lab around it. So that very chamber is 40 years old. A lot of engineering that we do came out of that very chamber.  


Do you have any interesting hobbies or talents you’d like to share?   

Prof. Ghafghazi: I’ve recently bought a tractor. They’re fun little machines. 


By Rachael Gallant
Read more about our CivMin summer research students here.