Clay Byers: Creating and Seizing Opportunity

They say luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. Clay Byers says that opportunity is also what happens when you take a chance on someone who just needs a little help. Clay knows because he has been both on the receiving end of that big break and fortunate enough to extend it to others.

“How many people do we come across throughout our lives that have an opportunity, but no one ever gave them a real chance?” asks the PhD student in Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering at Princeton. “Those stories always stood out to me. Anyone can grow up with challenging circumstances and still thrive. It is easy to sit there and judge them, but if they are asking for help why not reach out a hand and give what you can.”

Clay’s involvement in education has always stretched far beyond his own learning. From math tutor and remedial algebra teacher to undergraduate engineering instructor, Clay finds fulfillment in helping others learn and grow.  

“I will never forget the look on my neighbor’s face when she passed the GED exam after months of studying together, or the excitement of a high school student I tutored when his grades improved enough to earn an athletic scholarship,” he recalls.

It is the same feeling Clay had when he found out he was going to Washington State University. Like many smart kids that end up in engineering, Clay was born with a knack for math and science, and a general intuition for figuring out how stuff works. But unlike most of his classmates, no one in his family had ever gone to college—and there was no way his parents could afford to send him.

Growing up, Clay loved to hear stories about his grandfather’s adventures as a bush pilot in Alaska in the 1940s. He decided joining the U.S. Air Force was his best opportunity to earn a college degree, pursue engineering, and serve his country along the way.

Even though Clay ultimately decided being at the helm wasn’t for him, the military gave him the chance he needed to succeed. He never forgot about helping other students achieve the same goals.

“Those early tutoring experiences are what made me first think about academia. I realized that just because a teacher explains something in the classroom doesn’t mean that it clicks. I strived to help students see beyond what was on the page, to find the motivation that helps encourage them in their studies,” he says.

But first, duty called. After he graduated from Washington State University, Clay and his wife moved to the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California where he was stationed for four years as a developmental engineer on the western range launch facilities. Despite what the title would suggest, Clay says his job dealt fairly little with engineering and mostly with middle management. He was in charge of overseeing contractors and ensuring that radar, safety, and communications equipment was updated and maintained for launches.

Ironically, he says, the experience likely led to more successes in the lab today than a traditional engineering job. “I was always an introverted person,” he describes. “The military forced me to grow because I was thrust into this position where you either perform or you get in trouble.”

For example, Clay had to give a weekly briefing to the colonel and other high-ranking officers about how the money was being managed. Sometimes he had to make unpopular requests, such as asking that the range be taken offline for an update or repair.

“Looking back, I think ‘man if I screwed up the money I could have gone to jail,’” he jokes. “So now, when I have to present my research in front of a few professors I say, ‘hey, no problem!’”

As Clay’s service came to an end, he decided grad school was the right path. From the suburbs of Seattle to the wheat fields of Washington State University and the coastlines of Santa Barbara, Clay soon found himself roaming the shops of Nassau Street and tinkering around in Professor Marcus Hultmark’s Fluids Laboratory.

In fall 2017, Clay was awarded first place at the MAE research day for his project on “Multi-Component Velocity Measurements in a Wall Bounded Turbulent Flow Utilizing a Novel Sensor.” His work looked at temperature as a passive scalar in a turbulent boundary layer. In the experiment, Clay and his colleagues wanted to measure the temperature in a wall-bound turbulent flow using a nano-scale sensor. They expected to measure a higher temperature at the wall that would decrease as you moved further away. Clay was baffled when the sensor said the complete opposite.

“It was completely backwards,” he explains. “We turned the heat off and did the same measurement. What we found was that our temperature sensor was really sensing velocity. As the water passed over the sensor, it bent the wire and changed the signal.”

It was a happy accident. Clay and his colleagues searched the literature and discovered it was the first time something of that shape and geometry had been used for measuring velocity. They applied for a patent on the sensor and developed a start-up company called Tendo Technologies. In the real world, the sensor could be used to accurately measure very slow flow rates for medical supplies, such as an infusion or injection.

Clay is also developing mathematical methodologies to better understand turbulent equations of motion. When he comes up with a new equation or scaling parameter, he then utilizes and modifies the experimental facilities at the Forrestal campus to obtain data and test those scalings. Some of his current pursuits involve studying the mean and variance of the temperature field in heated boundary layers.

“My job is to take complex equations and make them simpler,” he says. “The idea isn’t that we are going to solve all of the problems, but rather how can we understand the problems from those governing ideas and parameters.”  

“Clay is self-motivated, driven, and organized which allows him to effectively conduct interesting research. He always has a plan for his research, which allows him to focus on the tasks ahead. Yet, Clay can still adapt if that plan fails or if he finds unexpected opportunities along the way,” explains Professor Hultmark. “Most students tend to either enjoy mathematical or experimental research, but Clay enjoys both and it adds a unique flavor to his research.”

Some of Clay’s favorite moments still take place outside the lab. As part of the W.E.B. DuBois Scholars Institute, he developed and taught an intro to engineering course for high school students who came from families or communities with historical barriers to opportunity and achievement. He also helps at Princeton’s McGraw Tutoring Program.

Of all his accomplishments, Clay is most proud of being honored with a teaching award from the Engineering Student Council. “I felt so gratified that the students thought my efforts helped them in a course that is not always so understandable,” he says.

When he graduates, Clay hopes to continue with both research and teaching. “I’ll jump at any opportunity to inspire young students,” he says. “It has always been what keeps me motivated.”

~Carolyn Sayre

Photo by Michael Franken