ME Faculty Quotes at the Centennial

by Marionne L. Epalle


Go to full article (HTML | PDF) in ENGenious Spring 2007: "Mechanical Engineering Celebrating 100 Years of Forward Motion in a Constantly Changing Landscape."

After this year's contest, I was walking back to my office from the auditorium and I ran into Mike Ikeda and Ghyrn Loveness. Their feet were not yet on the ground, they were just still aglow. And we had a wonderful conversation. They made comments much along the lines of "this is why we came to Caltech" and they were just so excited. I think they came in second. After all the nice words had been said and I was still enjoying their high level of excitement, they wanted to get a picture. So we posed on the walkway near Spalding in a nice spot, and a young lady took the picture of the three of us. I am shaking each of their hands. And they sent the picture to me. And it's just wonderful. The glow on their faces is just priceless.

I interviewed here when I was a student. The interview was spread out over three days; you meet great people and you have great conversations. What really struck me was that it was a place where people were very comfortable with themselves. There is not an artificial intensity. That struck me then, and that's what strikes me even now. It's a beautiful campus, great people, and people are very comfortable with who they are. It's not a pressure-cooker---people know you are doing some interesting things and people ask: can we help you? I think that's what's special about this place. Small enough to be personal, informal. You often think of elite places being very intense, high-pressure. Caltech combines very high standards with a very friendly atmosphere; that's what strikes me even today about Caltech.

I am interested in complex fluids. Complex fluids are, for example, personal care products, printing inks, polymers, polymer solutions---all kinds of ‘gunky' stuff. More formally, we call them multi-component materials in a fluid-like state. Often they are in the form of colloids---small particles dispersed in a liquid---and I try to understand their static properties. Can we form interesting structures? More importantly, I like to ask: How do they move? How do they behave? How do they flow? I've been doing fluid mechanics for a long time and have served on a number of thesis committees in ME, so joining the option, which I did in 2005, was a natural thing to do. I wanted to make my association more formal, and I wanted to become more involved in what goes on in Mechanical Engineering.

My grandfather on my mother's side was a mechanical engineer. In fact he was the head of the Belfast College of Technology. But he died five years before I was born. I was always interested in mechanical things. In the small Irish village where I grew up there was a real paucity of mechanical things to play with, especially in the aftermath of the Second World War. But still, I took apart my father's power lawn mower, the only one in the village, but couldn't put it back together. I loved doing things with my hands, and I loved practical physics. I was fortunate that I had teachers at the little Irish high school both in math and in physics that encouraged me and inspired me. And I was very fortunate---because of these excellent teachers, I managed to win a scholarship to go to Oxford University. That was a culture shock of the first magnitude. Somehow I survived and indeed I enjoyed it. I did all my degrees at Oxford. Then I went to work for the British government; I did a postdoc in a lab near London. While I was there, Caltech Professor Ted Wu came to visit; we got into conversation and had a great talk. He seemed very interested in what I was doing. A few weeks later he wrote to me and asked me to come here on a one-year postdoc, and that's what happened. I came here on a one-year postdoc---and that was 38 years ago. Chance has a lot to do with life sometimes.

I owe a great debt to a lot of the senior faculty---mentors like Chris Brennen, Allan Acosta, Frank Marble, and Ed Zukoski. When I was a young faculty member, they set the tone that you should be a gentleman and a scholar. They believed by their actions that people worked together and pushed the department forward. And this theme persists today: the faculty of the department really get along well. There are no politics. I actually enjoy going to ME faculty meetings. The faculty here have responsibility, but also feel ownership of the place. In larger schools you can feel more like just an employee.

At the end of the day, engineering is about making tools to solve real-world problems. So research in Mechanical Engineering is either research into the tools that are going to be used to create things in the future or research into the things you are going to build. We mechanical engineers are very much in demand: we have a skill set that is very much in demand. Collaborators from across campus find us, and we in turn have intentionally been very broad in our focus. For these reasons we have been very successful with lots of different activities at Caltech.

I think ME at Caltech is a little different than ME at other places. Our strength is at the interface of engineering and science. We don't do a lot of very applied and practical things that some other schools do---our unique niche is at the scientific end of the engineering spectrum. I was struck earlier this term when our new graduate students were here for orientation. We went around the table and asked them what they are interested in doing for research. And essentially every one of them said "micro-" or "nano-" something. Partly it's because we are interested in engineering at small scales, and we admitted those students. But I also think that illustrates one of our major directions: small things. Within my own work, I think there's quite a potential for using some of the recently developed nanofabrication methods to develop much higher performance electrodes. Electrodes now are made from a random mish mash of powders that are baked to sinter the particles together. But I think that a more engineered approach, less random, would lead to higher performance. I am very interested in exploring how new nanofabrication methods can lead to higher performance fuel cells. And I think that we can make structures that just a few years ago would have been impossible to make.

Caltech ME is still a special place---we still very much worry about how to educate students. What is the best way to get students interested not only in science, but interested in contributing to society? We aim to educate students in a way that results in building their confidence and their abilities so that they feel they are qualified to do a whole bunch of different things. Caltech does that in a unique way that is hard to find elsewhere---we pay close attention to the students and focus on fundamentals. What I really love is hearing about what students do with their Caltech degrees---the range of things they do and the challenges they overcome using the tools of their engineering backgrounds. They don't feel limited by their engineering---they can and do find success in many different things. That's a great testament to Caltech.

In Mechanical Engineering, as in the rest of Caltech, you have this amazing concentration of talented people, both in terms of faculty and also students and postdoctoral researchers. And when you talk to people here, everyone is so excited about their research---and not only are they doing things differently, they are doing something interesting. No matter whom you talk to, you come away with the feeling that if you were not going to continue in your own field, it would be so great to do what they are doing. That's what makes it so successful. An indication of how important our research is can be gleaned from how often papers by ME faculty are cited. Most papers are never cited at all---not even by the author! And then in some fields, there may be 50 co-authors for a given paper; if each author cites the paper once, there are 100 citations. But if you look at ME papers, in case after case there are 40, 60, 200 citations---in these specialized areas. These are huge numbers and indicative of the quality of the research.

I see very interesting feedback problems in biological machines. And we are now at the point at the organism level that we are able to probe into things like insects and other organisms much more deeply to understand how the machine works. There are applications, but I think it is interesting on a sheer scientific plane. At the cellular level, similarly, we are now able to probe in ways that we never were able to before, and therefore, we are able to design. So we can actually take the principles that we learn about how it works, and then design a new system using those principles. Synthetic biology is one of the areas I am interested in where Caltech is taking a reasonably early lead. My colleagues and I are interested in how to build things out of molecular machinery and to do so in a way that illuminates the biology that is going on. In the long run, the work may also be useful for developing therapeutic systems, detecting disease, and curing disease.

First and foremost, the aptitude, enthusiasm, and devotion to science and technology of Caltech's students are unparalleled. Caltech's student body is a national resource that feeds top talent into academia, industry, and the national laboratories. Another aspect that is increasingly rare and that particularly appeals to me in connection with my current focus on predictive science is Caltech's commitment to experimental science. As experimental programs at other elite institutions dwindle or are terminated outright at an alarming rate, Caltech's strength in experimental science becomes increasingly prominent. As a theorist, the opportunity to collaborate closely with leading experimental scientists is a luxury available at few other places and makes the Caltech experience unique.

In my heart I'm more of a physicist---which is what I am trained in. What I like is the application of mechanics to various things. Before I came to Caltech, I was working on how mechanics applies to materials. But I really have fun here working on how mechanics applies to biology. What really changed everything for me was this one particular experiment by a group at Berkeley. What they did is grabbed onto a single virus, and they held it while the virus was packing its DNA. I was so impressed with that; I thought it was such an incredibly cool example of applying mechanical ideas to something in the biological realm. I said---honest---I've got to work on that, no matter what, and I've got to bail on my former life. Which is what I did.

From everything that I can see---and I have talked to professors who have been here much longer than I have---ME is as strong as ever, is as well-positioned for the future as ever. This great array of talent here has kept the flame alive. When you are on top of so many areas, and when you do it for so long, there is only one way for you to go, which is down! But we haven't done that. The faculty here has kept the faith, and they have continued the tradition of Caltech excellence. We are going to change---you can expect that ten years from now the things that people will be working on will be significantly different than the things that people are working on today. You can already see that beginning. Mechanical engineering as a profession has changed significantly over the last 20 years and it will continue to change. This is the only way that makes any sense; the word mechanical engineering has been around for a long time---it's been around for 100 years at Caltech. We've been able to maintain this discipline in a way that doesn't compromise the past, and yet doesn't get stuck in the past.

I think that the thing that is unique about the ME department at Caltech is that it is a very strong department, engaged in quite fundamental engineering science, with an eye toward application. It is also a very cohesive group that cares very deeply about undergraduate and graduate education. Students are provided with the opportunity to work on real-life problems and they have excellent classes. Programs like Erik Antonsson's ME72 class and the DARPA Grand Challenge with Richard Murray---these have really energized the students. And they also draw deep inspiration from the robotics program. There are all sorts of opportunities that are very attractive, very appealing to the undergraduates. They know the faculty cares about them. There is a sense of family.

Interactions with people like Erik Antonsson have always been very rewarding---we have been active in things that have to do with space science due to our respective roles---mine as Director of GALCIT, and his as (former) Chief Technologist of JPL. Of course I also work closely with the other solids professors. One of the most exciting parts of my current research is doing laboratory seismology, and in this I work very closely with Nadia Lapusta. Since her arrival in 2004, we have already shared one student and we are in the process of getting another to work with us on these earthquake problems. The students are of very high caliber; our new student will actually be carrying out both experiments, from my side, and theory and numerics from Nadia's side.

I think the ME program is a very good program for the undergraduates because it gives them an exposure to actual mechanical things---they get to work on bits of hardware. I think the reason students like to come to a place like Caltech is because they imagine that they are going to be doing things with their hands. They are going to be building things, measuring things---doing something other than sitting in front of the video screen. So much of modern education has become very passive. ME at Caltech provides an outlet for students who are interested in working with technology in a hands-on way. And that is something that I hope we can continue as a tradition. You can go anywhere and sit in classes---and you can argue that the classes here are better than those anywhere else. But I think the key point is that students have this wonderful opportunity to have interactions with the faculty who run these research labs. It's a fantastic opportunity. You learn so much working in a laboratory---not only learning about that specialty, but also learning how to be in a research group and what it's like to be on an exciting research project. That's where the tremendous advantage of Caltech lies.

When I was a grad student at Berkeley, I saw a yellowed paper on a lab bulletin board announcing an EE search at Caltech. It was drafted by Dave Rutledge. It had been on the wall for at least two-and-a-half years. Then I did one thing right. I actually emailed Dave Rutledge asking if the position was still open. He said yes. We did not know each other at the time. He invited me to send in my information, and I did. Dave invited me for an interview almost instantly. So I came. I liked the people here. Paul Jennings, the Division Chair, told me "Tai, you come here, and we'll build you a lab." When I talked to faculty, basically they told me I could do anything I wanted. Less than one week after the interview they called me to ask me to come for another interview and offered me the job. From the time I saw the yellowed paper to the offer was less than a month. No regrets!

My office was in the Thomas building the year I was on sabbatical at Caltech as a Moore Scholar in 2004-2005. I spent many hours discussing various projects and what not with the faculty there. What I like is the combination of very strong emphasis on experimentation with the fact that ME has some of the finest mathematicians. It's a really nice blend. One of the things that attracted me to Caltech---and it is something that is important that we must continue to maintain---is that Caltech has somehow managed to preserve the fundamental characteristic of mechanical engineering that focuses on building things. This forms a natural basis for mechanical engineering.

Go to full article (HTML | PDF) in ENGenious Spring 2007: "Mechanical Engineering Celebrating 100 Years of Forward Motion in a Constantly Changing Landscape."

Last updated 2/16/07.

Christopher E. Brennen