Virginia Tech professor studying ship motion, capsizing causes

The following is a press release issued by Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University:
(BLACKSBURG, Va.) — Saving lives and ships by improving the stability and safety of sea-going vessels is the goal of Virginia Tech College of Engineering researcher Leigh McCue, who has won two highly competitive grants to support her research.

McCue, an assistant professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering, has received a $410,000 Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation and a $300,000 Young Investigator Program (YIP) Award from the Office of Naval Research.

Both are among the nation’s most prestigious grants awarded to creative young researchers who have the potential to become leaders in their fields.

McCue is developing tools to help ship designers better understand ship motions and, thus, help prevent capsizing and other dangers resulting from vessel instabilities.

“Each year, instabilities claim lives, cargo, and craft, often in vessels meeting or exceeding current safety regulations,” McCue said. For example, commercial fishing has by far the highest fatality rate among all occupations in the U.S, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2006 the fatality rate among commercial fishermen was 141.7 deaths per 100,000 workers.

One of the primary objectives of McCue’s research is to develop an understanding of large-amplitude ship motions. “By arriving at mathematical approximations for the boundary between stability and capsize, we will have a better physical understanding of vessel behaviors,” she said.

Another objective is to validate computer simulations of nonlinear large-amplitude ship motions, which can lead to instability. “Ship instabilities are often viewed as a binary issue—either a vessel will capsize or won’t capsize,” McCue said. “So it’s important to ensure that a computer simulation is more accurate and physically relevant than something like a coin toss.”

Also, McCue aims to develop on-board, real-time motion prediction tools. “The ultimate goal of this component of the research is to provide ship captains with warning of imminent dangers to their craft for a range of dynamic stability phenomena,” she said.

Each CAREER project includes an educational component, and McCue’s research will be complemented by outreach efforts to recruit future engineers. She will work in partnership with Virginia Tech’s Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity (CEED) to incorporate SeaPerch activities in CEED’s summer camps and other recruitment initiatives. SeaPerch is a hands-on program that teaches pre-college students about underwater robotics and vehicles.

McCue, who joined the Virginia Tech faculty in 2005, was selected as an American Society for Engineering Education/Office of Naval Research summer faculty researcher for 2005 and 2006. She received a College of Engineering Dean’s Award for Outstanding New Assistant Professor in 2007.

McCue completed her Ph.D. and master’s degree in naval architecture and marine engineering, as well as another master’s in aerospace engineering, at the University of Michigan, and earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton University.

To learn more about McCue’s research, visit;

By Professional Mariner Staff