Bruce Perry: Member of MAE’s Combustion Olympics team

This summer, while international athletes prepare for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, Bruce Perry will travel to Seoul, Korea for the Combustion Olympics.


Perry is a second year Ph.D. student in Professor Michael Mueller’s group, the Computational Turbulent Reacting Flow Laboratory (CTRFL), where he works on computer simulations and developing models to better understand the physics of combustion.


Perry’s advancement from undergraduate student to graduate studies in combustion is itself a proverbial story of chemical reactions.


From Akron, Ohio, Perry – who has blond hair, blue eyes, and a disarming smile – comes from a family of scientists and academics: his father is a chemistry professor at the University of Akron, his mother is a school librarian, and he has three older brothers: a nuclear engineer, a paramedic, and a nurse. In addition to his father’s science demonstrations, “my older brothers were always doing engineering and science-y things,” said Perry, which contributed to his interest in the discipline.


In high school, the classes in the engineering program in which Perry participated were his favorite. Additionally, during his last two summers, Perry interned in the University of Akron’s chemical engineering department, which “got his feet wet” in academic research, he said.


Perry pursued a combined Bachelor’s and Master’s in chemical engineering at Northwestern University. “My dad is a chemist, and it seemed like the path of least resistance. I enjoyed the introductory courses, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do right away, so I had a few internships to help things out.”


After completing some coursework, I was “accidentally” offered a co-op near Northwestern with Fenwal, a company that makes blood donation bags and other blood donation products, Perry said. He worked at Fenwal for a total of four terms, alternating between schoolwork and classes.


Eventually Perry realized that he was less interested in pursuing medical technology and biology-related engineering, engineering interests he honed at Fenwal.  His work on computer simulations of blood flow through blood cell separation–blood filters spurred Perry’s interest in computational modeling versus being in a lab. “I found it to be more fun to be on a computer and figure out a little of programming,” he said.


Following his freshman year, Perry interned at the Ohio Aerospace Institute/NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, which got him interested in aerospace. There, he was responsible for figuring out how solar radiation damages material used in space, specifically the Teflon® insulation used on the Hubble Space Telescope, and how to improve such material.


“It was really exciting to be handling material that had been flown in space and brought back down,” he said. “Everyone there was very excited about what they were doing and that was very appealing to me; at that point I decided I wanted to go back to graduate school.”


Perry graduated from Northwestern in December 2013 and was accepted to Princeton. In the months between graduation and starting his Ph.D., he interned at the Universities Space Research Association/NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, where he worked on detailed chemical process modeling for space-based water recovery systems, or in layman’s terms: turning pee into drinkable water. This was the most interesting thing he worked on between graduation and coming here, he said.


Essentially, Perry worked on a water purification system for space stations for long-duration space exploration. It takes two to three years to take a trip to Mars, he explains, so whatever [water] you start with is what you have. This internship allowed me to apply my computational fluid dynamics interest to aerospace. “It’s a funny project – glad I was doing simulations and not experimental tests,” he joked.


Perry’s chemical engineering background together with his computer simulations of blood flow and then his work at NASA served as a bridge to his current place in Mueller’s CTRFL lab. One of Perry’s NASA Glenn Research Center colleagues – who knew Professor Law – the senior faculty member in the combustion group – advised Perry that the combustion work at Princeton was the best place for him given his interests. “I knew I wanted to do computational fluid dynamics for something aerospace related,” he said, “but beyond that I didn’t have a particular focus.”


At Princeton, after meeting a few professors in this area, he asked Mueller to serve as his advisor. Professor Mueller stuck out, he said.


Perry is a stereotypical Midwestern American male, he fits that description, he’s tall, a rower, said Mueller, but “one of the interesting things about Bruce is that he is relatively quiet; he is humble and soft spoken, considering he is a very bright student. Humility is a good thing in academia,” Mueller continued. “I like students who have a desire to learn more. He is eager, wants to contribute and has a hunger – what else could we ask for in Princeton student?”


What also caught Mueller’s attention is that Perry is less interested in academia; most of the Ph.D. students in the MAE department, at least initially, want to stay in academics. Perry however, wants to apply his research interests to industry or a government lab, said Mueller


Perry explains that the work he does in Mueller’s lab has general applications for engines, but the most direct application is for jet engines. Simply stated, the goal of the research, explains Perry, is to develop better tools to design and simulate a practical engine that is both more efficient and has less pollution formation. We propose a new model, publish in journals, and then other people can incorporate our design process into their modeling. “Our modeling is much more economical than building and testing engines at Princeton,” he said.       


In fact, “it can cost up to $20 million or more to build an engine prototype,” said Mueller, “so we can only build so many.” We are not in the business of designing engines; we develop physics-derived and physics-based models.

To publish a paper in a journal as a young scholar is rather unusual, but Perry, together with Mueller and A.R. Masri – a professor from the University of Sydney with whom Perry collaborates on work – submitted a paper to the Proceedings of the Combustion Institute, the journal published by the Combustion Institute; the Institute is the primary professional combustion research society and host of the upcoming, biennial International Symposium on Combustion (sometimes referred to as the Combustion Olympics).


That Perry’s paper was accepted means he will give a presentation at the August conference, which is a wonderful experience as he will connect with all the textbook names, said Mueller. 


Perry is not new at presenting at conferences, however. For a young scholar, his three-page CV already lists six conference presentations Perry has given since 2015.


It’s no wonder Perry no longer has time for rowing, his former passion outside the lab. Perry rowed throughout his time at Northwestern with the university’s club rowing team as well as with the Bay Area Rowing Club of Houston, when he was working for NASA.  Despite having excellent rowing teams practicing in Perry’s backyard, his daily hours in the lab prevent him from waking up at 5 am.


When asked about the types of companies he hopes to work for – General Electric, Boeing, or Rolls Royce – Perry mentions he has perused NASA’s requirements for the Astronaut Candidate application, which they open up to anyone in the U.S. every few years. “I just missed the level of experience they required; I have the two years,

but not the three.” Once he has the requisite years of experience, Perry said he’ll definitely apply, but the shot of getting it is very small. “It would be a dream of mine to be an astronaut.”


Perry does a fantastic job: “It’s amazing how he went from zero to sitting down and teaching me some things,” Mueller said. “He figures out what he needs to solve a problem – finds it in the literature – and he’s incredibly fast at picking something up and running with it. It’s good to have someone like Bruce in your camp.”


-Femke de Ruyter