8 Questions with Nicole Sharp of FYFD

Nicole Sharp is a Ph.D. candidate in aerospace engineering and author of popular science outreach blog “F^&% Yeah Fluid Dynamics”.

[The images below are considered by Nicole to be some of the most beautiful from FYFD posts. Click the image to read the associated article.]

What do you see are the biggest challenges facing computational fluid dynamics (CFD) in the next three years?

I see a few interesting challenges down the line. As CFD packages become more powerful and ubiquitous, there is the danger of users not understanding the importance of validation and verification in their simulations. Just as doing a quality experiment requires more than turning on a wind tunnel and recording the results, a good simulation has to be guided by a firm understanding of the physics and what the code is doing. On the development side, there are exciting challenges in adapting to more powerful supercomputers. As processing power increases, communication between separate CPUs is becoming more of a bottleneck for parallel processing. I’ve heard about some really neat research going into those kinds of problems, determining how codes can utilize increased computational power without waiting on other nodes to finish their calculations.

John: Is there any validity (pardon the pun) to the old adage “Everyone believes the wind tunnel results except for whomever ran the test. No one believes the CFD except for whomever ran the code.” There are quite a few high visibility V&V projects going on right now like the Drag Prediction Workshop, High Lift Prediction Workshop, and Sonic Boom Prediction Workshop. Part of the problem with validation is finding a fully documented test case, from geometry through data collection.

Nicole: As an experimentalist, I think I can attest to the first part of that adage! Finding well-documented experiments for validation is tough, which is why it helps to have experimentalists and computationalists working hand-in-hand on problems. Now and in the future, part of being a good experimentalist is defining your experiment, geometry, and set-up in a manner that a computationalist can run a companion simulation. When you get to the point where the experiment is well enough described that the CFD starts with the geometry and conditions and gets the same qualitative and quantitative outcomes as the experiment, you can be much more confident in the results. And that benefits both the experiment and computation.

What are you currently working on?

Outside of researching and writing daily blog entries, I’m eager to expand FYFD’s outreach. I’m working on building more of a community through Twitter and Google+, and I’d love to start making some FYFD-specific videos, hopefully with the help of researchers and professionals in the field. FYFD has a large student audience, so it’s a great way for the fluid dynamics community to reach young people.


John: In my opinion, part of the problem with social media is that it’s all a bunch of vertical silos. Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+, Tumblr, Pinterest are all islands of data and you have to post to each separately. (I know that’s not strictly true because you can make your tweets show up as Facebook posts.) Compare this to email where anyone can read my email regardless of what email system they’re using. How do you decide what to post to each social media channel?

Nicole: These days there’s a certain amount of re-posting between services that happens, where people try to direct traffic back to their original content. But, at the same time, I think every service has its own advantages and disadvantages as a platform for original content. Twitter is amazing for having immediate contact and discussions with followers, but it’s terrible for archiving that information or getting more than one or two people in the discussion. Usually I decide which content goes where based on what I want to accomplish with a post. For discussion, I’d choose Twitter or Google+ since I know that Tumblr is notoriously terrible at dealing with conversations and comments.

John: Does your outreach extend beyond social media?

Aside from fluid dynamics outreach, I have a passion for helping women in engineering. Women make up about 18 percent of engineering fields overall in the U.S., but aerospace engineering lags about 6 percentage points behind that average (Ref: Engineering by the Numbers by Brian L. Yoder). I’ve taken part in several efforts to address this, most recently by helping establish the Aggie Aerospace Women in Engineering (AAWE) organization at Texas A&M and serving as its first chief coordinator. AAWE provides personal and professional networking for women in the department and promotes the field of study. It helps build a community and support structure for the women throughout the department, and, even after just a year, our meetings and professional development activities have garnered a good following among both female and male aerospace students.

John: The topic of women in engineering arises frequently in my work on the advisory board for my alma mater. How do we bridge the gray area of attracting women to engineering while not involving them primarily (or solely) because of their gender?

Nicole: There’s always a fear among women in engineering that we get chosen based on our gender rather than our talent. I think one of the best ways to get past that is to have more female candidates, but that has to be a long-term goal. It requires addressing issues in our education system and stereotypes in our culture from childhood through the workplace. I’m optimistic, though, because the attitude in engineering is changing, and there are many great projects out there to increase girls’ interest in science and engineering from programs like Expanding Your Horizons to products like Goldie Blox. There are also lots of geeky parents out there who refuse to let gender stereotypes affect their children’s dreams and that makes a difference in the workplace today as well as tomorrow.

My day job, though, is finishing my Ph.D. on surface roughness effects on hypersonic boundary layer transition. Clearly, I keep busy!


How did you get to be where you are today?

I knew from early on that I wanted to pursue a science subject, but I was in middle school before I settled on aerospace engineering. I didn’t know any engineers growing up, and I went into my undergraduate studies at Case Western Reserve University without a clear understanding of what aerospace engineers do. I had, and still have, a dream of becoming an astronaut, though, so it was a path that made sense. In junior year, I fell in love with fluid dynamics and shifted my attention that direction, pursuing a senior project in the subject and taking a couple of graduate-level classes in it my senior year. My excitement for the subject eventually led me to start FYFD. Despite its daily impact in our lives, few people ever have the chance to learn about fluid dynamics in school, and I want to share my passion for it with others, even if they haven’t had the years of calculus considered a prerequisite for the subject.

Who or what inspired you to get started in your career?

NASA played a major inspirational role for me. I grew up during the height of the Space Shuttle program, a time when people going into space seemed almost normal. When NASA merged its plans with other space agencies to create the International Space Station in 1993, it solidified my desire to become an astronaut. Living in space with a crew from around the world and doing science together sounded like the best job ever. Thankfully, my parents and teachers were always very supportive, even if I had some lofty aspirations for a girl from a small town in Arkansas.

John: Do you still think the U.S. space program provides inspirations for today’s young people? How, if at all, has the move toward commercial access to space changed that?

Nicole: I look at the outreach NASA is doing today, and eight-year-old me is utterly green with jealousy! We live in a world where anyone can send tweets to astronauts in orbit, where we can see pictures from robots on other planets and videos about what living in space is like on a daily basis. There is an unprecedented amount of information aimed at general audiences coming from NASA and other space agencies. I see kids every bit as excited about space exploration as I was growing up, and there is much more fuel on hand to feed that fire than there once was. So far I haven’t seen commercial space access having that kind of effect on kids, but I think it’s generating lots of excitement among young engineers, who appreciate the hands-on, fast-paced opportunities for seeing their work fly. Personally, I’m eager for SpaceX and others to prove their ability to get manned loads to low-earth-orbit so that Congress will give NASA the go-ahead to focus their efforts on getting humanity beyond earth orbit.


What advice do you have for young people entering the field today?

Hold on to your passion. Many of us choose science and engineering because we love some aspect of it—whether it’s discovering new things about the world or designing and building something new. It can be easy to lose sight of that and get bogged down by homework, projects, politics, social expectations, and so forth. But if you always remember what made you love the subject in the first place, it’s easier to pick yourself up and keep going when things get tough.

John: Do you think the way we teach engineering is a culprit in a student’s loss of passion?

Nicole: I certainly think it plays a role. It’s not possible to make every part of every engineering lesson exciting and engaging for every student.  As with all things, educators have to strike a balance.

How do you know Pointwise?

As an experimentalist, I haven’t had direct contact with Pointwise or Gridgen in the course of my work, but I know Pointwise through FYFD. I think it’s wonderful that Pointwise, as a company, has embraced social media as a way to connect with customers and the field. It helps humanize the company and the product. Instead of working with software from some huge, faceless corporation, users can see the people behind the work and feel more comfortable approaching them to explain their applications or look for support.

John: Based on your personal experience, can you dispel the notion that engineers don’t like social media? How do people of your generation expect to use social media as part of their profession?

Nicole: We’re at the cusp of a new world when it comes to using social media in professions like engineering. There are many instances where it cannot and should not be used—for reasons of clearance, copyright, International Traffic in Arms Regulations  (ITAR), and so forth. Already companies and employees are experiencing backlash from corporate espionage through social media. But it would be such a loss to completely write off these tools, even if they require changing the way we work. What company doesn’t benefit from getting the public excited about its work and its product? How many more engineers can we produce if kids can see the individuals behind massive projects and get a chance to interact with them?

Can you share with us your favorite tools and resources that help you get your job done?

When it comes to FYFD, I have an ever-evolving set of tools I use to find and research topics for posts, track what others are writing about, and keep everything organized. I am a huge fan of Google Scholar, which helps me find papers and authors, and I use Feedly to organize RSS feeds from major journals, science news outlets, and other blogs. When I find good material but I don’t have time to write about it right away, I use Evernote to keep all the photos, sources, and other information in one place.

It’s no secret that the American Physical Society’s Division of Fluid Dynamics meeting is a big source of material for FYFD. A lot of the photos and videos researchers enter in the Gallery of Fluid Motion make their way onto FYFD at some point, and, through the presentations, I get a chance to learn about many different corners of the field beyond my own. That helps bring perspective and variety to FYFD.

John: Pointwise will be participating in the APS meeting this year for the first time. Hopefully we’ll find many fluid dynamicists who want a better mesh generator.

Nicole: I think it will be a great way to connect with current and future customers. And I look forward to stopping by your booth and saying hi!

If we were to come visit you, where’s a good place to go out for dinner?

There are quite a few tasty places in Bryan/College Station, but I am very partial to the burgers served at Grub. I’ve had some very good market burgers—like the Lamb Burger or the Thai Peanut Sauce Burger—but my two stand-bys are the You’re My Boy Blue Burger and the Hippie Chickpea, which is an eggplant and chickpea-based patty and the best veggie burger I’ve ever had.

John: Having two boys at Texas A&M, there will be plenty of chances for me to checkout Grub. Thanks for the recommendation. Had I known you were a burger fan, we could’ve gone to Charlie’s when you recently visited Pointwise. My favorite is a huge burger we jokingly call The Barnyard because its ingredients feature all the animals you’d find on a farm. If only they’d add a fried egg.

Thanks for taking time to share with us. Good luck on completing your Ph.D.

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3 Responses to 8 Questions with Nicole Sharp of FYFD

  1. Daniel WEI says:

    Oh, I like the dinner place part 🙂

  2. John Chawner says:

    Thanks for reading and commenting, Daniel. Do you prefer Nicole’s veggie burger or my “barnyard?”

  3. Pingback: Pointwise at 2013 APS DFD | Another Fine Mesh

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