Research Day 2021

The sixth annual Research Day for Princeton’s department of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering was held September 10 and it was a chance, as Ph.D. candidate Wilson Ricks explains it, “for students and labs to show what they do.”

There were six MA&E students chosen, one representing each of the department’s six disciplines. The big difference of course is that in 2021, Research Day was again a live event. Well, sort of.

“It was good to finally be back,” Ricks adds. “Virtually last year was alright. There’s more energy that (live) way.” The ‘sort of’ is that the M&AE presenters were live; the audience watched remotely.

Ricks, who has a B.A. from the University of Chicago and expects to complete his Ph.D. in 2024, is a graduate researcher in the ZERO Lab at Princeton and his presentation centered on techniques for turning geothermal power plants into battery storage. The energy storage becomes important in determining where to shift wind and solar power.

Ricks’ fellow M&AE presenters were: Xiaohan Du who is in a Ph.D. program in Material Sciences; Jiarong Wu, working on her Ph.D. in Fluid Mechanics; Eric S. Lepowsky, a Ph.D. candidate since 2019 who received his Master of Arts this past spring; Anvitha Sudakar who is finishing the second year of her Ph.D. candidacy and Susan M. Redmond, a Ph.D. candidate in Aerospace Engineering.

The event served different purposes for different students. For Wu, who received her B.S. in Mechanical Engineering at Beijing’s Tsinghua University in 2018 before coming to Princeton, it was a chance to get in some practice for other presentations, such as a fluids mechanic symposium she is due to speak at in November in Phoenix. “Research Day was my first (in-person presentation) in maybe a year and a half,” she says. “It feels good to have in-person interaction.”

Wu, whose research centers on ocean science – such as wind wave generation and growth mechanisms -  found out about a month prior to the event that she’d be presenting and had to trim her presentation after originally exceeding the 10-minute mark. “I see it as a tiny milestone,” she says about the experience. She sees a real-world application for her work for those trying to build offshore wind farms, pointing out that offshore and inland wind farms are different. She also discussed the impact on the marine environment.

“It’s very hard to cover anything in ten minutes,” says Redmond whose thesis is on high contrast imaging for exoplanet detection. “It was 22 minutes at first!” She had given a presentation in San Diego in August which made this presentation “a little more relaxing. At the conference, everyone is presumed to be an expert.”

Redmond, was due to start a project with a group in Baltimore when Covid struck in the spring of 2020. A graduate of both the Memorial University of Newfoundland (Bachelor in Mechanical Engineering) and the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (Masters of Applied Science in Aerospace Engineering), she is now hopeful that a balloon telescope launch planned for next March in New Zealand will proceed as planned.

“Initially I was nervous,” admits Du who has dual degrees in mechanical engineering and business management from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “Then when it was near the end, I started to enjoy it. It was so quick!” She had been asked by her post doctorate if she wanted to apply for Research Day, to “get out of her comfort zone,” and she submitted a 200-word abstract on her research which concerns the permanent memory of drawings on glass. Permanent memories are created on things like computers or superconductors. A question they are tackling is whether memories would remain even if an event such as an earthquake occurred.

Sudakar, like several others, appreciated the opportunity to present for the 20 or so new students who virtually watched the event. “Maybe it influenced others,” she says. “It’s a good feeling, to help them see if they can go in this direction.” But it was still a challenge, presenting to the bifurcated audience. “It was a little intimidating at first,” she says, “just little windows (watching the audience). I didn’t really see or feel their presence.”

Overall, she summarizes, it was “a thrill and a responsibility.”

Sudakar, who is pursuing her Ph.D. in the mechanics of biological science,  presented about collaborations she is involved with making computational models on lizard lungs. One of her current projects is making a computational model of alveoli formation in lizard lungs during embryonic development.

“I sat in the audience a couple years ago,” adds Lepowsky who presented on nuclear safeguards and arms control. “I was very happy to have this opportunity to share my work.” Lepowsky, who enjoyed the “nodding heads” of the virtual audience is doing research on developing a robotic neutron detector to perform inspections for nuclear safety. As far as current limits on nuclear warheads agreed upon by the United States and Russia, he wonders “what about eliminating all warheads.” This could, Lepowsky thinks, become his dissertation. He sees for his future a focus on interdisciplinary work in, say, a national lab, not in academia. “I want my engineering research grounded in fundamental science”

All in all, a good time seemed to be had by all. “It was a happy reunion of the MAE community,” exclaimed Du.


-- David Krakow