For Carla Bahri, Smooth Sailing Is No Fun
Have you ever felt that sickening sensation when your airliner dips suddenly and the frightened passenger in the next seat grabs your arm in a brief but vise-like grip?
Turbulence doesn’t bother Carla Bahri. As a matter of fact, she’s downright enthusiastic about it.
“I’ve loved airplanes and flying since I was a kid,” says Carla, who is on course to earn her doctorate in May and hopes to resume her training to get her private pilot’s license at Princeton airport when her study life calms down. “Even as a mechanical engineer who understands how things fly, I still find flying extremely amazing and magical,” she says. “The power, the freedom and the excitement are always overwhelming.”
Carla’s specialty is turbulent fluid dynamics, a topic that she says is “compelling mainly because it’s ubiquitous in both nature and engineering. You see it in smoke, wind, waterfalls.” The subject is especially challenging because turbulence is unsteady, irregular, and seemingly random and chaotic. “Mathematically, it is very hard to solve the governing equations, so it is definitely a challenging and exciting research area,” she says.
Students and faculty in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering may recall Carla from the department’s Research Day in September, when she was one of five students — and the only woman — who made a research presentation during the event in Bowen Hall. She was the runner-up among the five presenters. Her talk was titled “Self-similarity of Passive Scalar Spectra in Grid-turbulence with Mean Cross-stream Temperature Gradient.”
A self-confessed “math geek,” Carla received the Athena-Feron award for excellence in mathematical subjects from the department at the end of her first year at Princeton. Her father was a math teacher.
“I think math influenced the way I think and approach life,” she says. “Every time I encounter a problem or a challenge, math helps me to systematically and efficiently solve it. Math is a way of life and not only crazy equations on papers!”
Born and raised in Lebanon, she earned her undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at the American University of Beirut in 2008.
She also speaks three languages: French, which she spoke at home and at school, English, which she learned at the American University, and Arabic. “Languages open your mind to different cultures and different worlds, and extend your space beyond the limitation of communication,” she says.
Having grown up near the shores of the Mediterranean sea (“with great food and great people”) she has “a passion for the sea that I miss everyday.” That passion led to an interest oil painting with her father, whom she describes as the person “who shaped the way I live and think.”
“I used to paint with him for long, long hours, and it was wonderful,” she recalls. “We painted a lot of pictures of the Mediterranean, all times, all seasons. But my favorite one that I did is actually of a bridge at sunset, and it was the last one I did with him.”
Her father was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) in 2003, and she learned much from his nearly decade-long struggle with the disorder.
“He couldn’t have been any stronger in fighting this ugly disease, and he never stopped smiling,” she says. “When I lost him, I lost my constant in life. But through the long nine years of that disease, I learned how to put things and life in perspective, how to be strong, how not to give up under any circumstances and how not to waste time because eventually, life can be beautiful.”
At Princeton, she describes the MAE department as “the natural and ideal place” for her to pursue her academic interests. Her faculty advisors, professors Marcus Hultmark and Michael Mueller, have nothing but praise for their student. “When Carla has a goal in mind, she will accomplish it,” they said. “And being a careful and detail-oriented person, she will not cut any corners or make any mistakes (we have actually never seen her make a mistake). This allows her to attack problems that other students might shy away from.
“Her very strong mathematical inclination leads her to theoretical work, but in turbulence you typically need to combine that with numerical or experimental work, and Carla has mastered all three aspects.”
Carla has supplemented her studies with a bit of entrepreneurship, having helped develop ClickStick, which Drug Store News described in an October 2014 article as “the world's first smart electric deodorant applicator, equipped with push-button delivery, adjustable amounts, LED indicators and a free mobile app.”
The team leader on the ClickStick project, which remains a work in progress, is Gilad Arwatz, a postdoctoral researcher in the MAE department. On ClickStick’s page on Kickstarter, he describes Carla as “an exceptionally smart person with unique attention to details (that’s why we had to build 20 prototypes until she was happy with the location of the push button).”