Tyler Van Buren: Merging Disciplines for a Greater Impact

Talk to Tyler Van Buren about his unconventional path to Princeton and he will tell you about the months he spent couch surfing in upstate New York. Three years ago, Tyler was living in Philadelphia with his wife and working on a PhD thesis in fluid mechanics, when he reached out to Professor Alexander Smits for a tour of his laboratory. Inspired by his research, Tyler offered to volunteer his time.


“Thankfully, no professor will turn down free help,” says Tyler. “This was an incredible opportunity for me because it exposed me to many new research areas and I was able to experience how to operate an immensely successful laboratory.”


Later that year, when Tyler graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), he was offered a rare opportunity for valuable teaching experience—a full-time lecturing position. However, he did not want to give up his work at Princeton. Tyler’s week went something like this: wake up at 4am Monday morning and drive four hours to RPI, teach until Thursday morning, drive three hours to Princeton, work in the laboratory Friday and Saturday, and spend Sundays catching up with his wife. Since the arrangement was temporary, Tyler would crash on various friends’ couches during the week or—more often than he likes to admit—doze off in the comfy recliner in his RPI office.


“I joke now with the students that this was what I called a ‘free trial technique,’” says Tyler. “Donating my time a few days a week allowed me to get my foot in the door and become an integral part of several projects at Princeton.”


Tyler’s dedication paid off—a year later, he was hired full-time. Today, he works as a Professional Specialist in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. As an expert in fluid dynamics, Tyler works on four notable projects that involve understanding turbulent and unsteady flows. However, what he finds most fascinating—and challenging—about his work is that each venture merges fluid dynamics with one or more additional specialties including biology, chemistry, materials, hematology, and electronics.


“This type of research is important because rarely can a real-world problem be solved with knowledge of only a single discipline,” explains Tyler. “If there is one thing that Professor Smits has impressed upon me it is the importance of conducting research at the merger of multiple fields. Often, this is how your work can have the most meaning.”


When he first came to Princeton as a visiting research collaborator, Tyler became an essential part of two hydrodynamics projects in Professor Smits’ lab, which focused on developing quieter and more efficient aquatic vehicles. The goal of the largest project—inspired by his mentor’s experience swimming with manta rays—is to replicate the complex motions of a fish.


“Unlike submarines and large boats that are very cumbersome and propeller driven, fish move through water with grace and agility,” explains Tyler. “By understanding how their bodies and fins move, we can develop more efficient techniques to propel vehicles through water.”


Another area of Tyler’s work incorporates chemistry to infuse surfaces with liquids that reduce drag forces on underwater vehicles. His team is interested in understanding a phenomenon known as the superhydrophobic effect, which causes surfaces to repel water and can reduce the high skin friction associated with turbulent flows. If scientists can harness this effect, it would allow boats to run more efficiently and burn less fuel.


“What stands out most about Tyler is that he wants to know everything. He will become involved in any project simply because he wants to learn and understand new things,” says Professor Smits. 


Tyler has been involved in his two remaining projects since the initial research proposals. The first endeavor combines hematology with turbulence, which occurs when a fluid has high momentum, exemplified by white water rapids in a river.


These turbulent flows can also occur in blood, most commonly when drawn too quickly through a needle or when passing through a dialysis machine and back into the body. When this occurs, the turbulence damages red blood cells through high stress, which can cause serious health problems. Tyler is trying to create a device that can actively detect when blood is damaged, saving time, money, and possibly lives as well.  


In perhaps the most unique intersection of fields, Tyler conceived a research project that uses knowledge of acoustics to harvest wind energy. “Everyone knows the sound that occurs when you blow into a soda bottle and make a music note,” explains Tyler. “That sound is actually energy, caused by the phenomena known as Helmholtz resonance.”


Tyler is trying to find a way to extract that energy using advancements in piezoelectrics,  which generate an electric charge under mechanical stress. Today, the main source of wind energy is wind turbine farms, which require a large area of land. But this type of technology could be used as an alternative source of energy on a smaller scale, possibly used in urban environments or to power remote devices.


Ever since high school, Tyler says he has been hooked on solving problems.

It all started when his small town public school in upstate New York offered a group of engineering classes through a program called Project Lead the Way. For a class project, Tyler was asked to design a vehicle that could travel down the hallway without touching the floor. Tyler’s group designed a simple helium balloon, while the other team attempted to make an elaborate hover board.


“What fascinated me most about that project was that in any given situation there was more than one solution to a problem,” he says. “I started to think about what it would be like to tackle these challenges on a daily basis if engineering was my profession.”


At Princeton, Tyler is also involved with a number of outreach projects promoting diversity in Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics (STEM). He’s a founding member of the Committee for Climate and Inclusion at Princeton. Recently, he played a major role in organizing the annual Harlem Prep school visit that allowed fourth and fifth graders to participate in research.


Someday, Tyler says, he hopes to return to academia or run a laboratory. The next time he teaches, however, Tyler plans to enjoy the comforts of his own bed at night. Even though he is done couch surfing, Tyler does admit that a good night of sleep is still hard to come by. The most recent addition to his project scope is a two-month-old baby girl named Catherine, who he fondly describes as the “happiest lack of sleep I could ever ask for.”