“What we have in common is mechanical engineering. The people in this program come from different backgrounds, different levels of education, but we have the same knowledge base.”
Science and engineering transcend demographic differences in the experience of Iyabo Lawal, a first-year graduate student in MECH at Rice University, based on the six weeks she spent in the Nonlinear Dynamics of Coupled Structures and Interfaces (ND-CSI) summer program run by Matthew Brake, assistant professor of MECH at Rice.
What distinguishes ND-CSI from other engineering summer programs is the breadth of its participants’ backgrounds. Enrolled were 16 graduate students and postdocs from nine countries, four Texas high-school students in a STEM outreach program, and seven Rice undergraduates, with one more from the University of California, Berkeley. The undergrads are co-advised by Eleazar Marquez, a lecturer in MECH at Rice. All graduate students and postdocs were given six weeks of homework to complete before the program started June 26 on the Rice campus.
“The younger students are learning what it’s like to be a graduate researcher. They’re doing hands-on work themselves and learning how to work as part of a team and write a report on their findings. The grad students and postdocs learn what it means to be a mentor,” Brake said.
The students piled into four teams. Lawal joined Shrinil Shah, who earned his master’s degree in MECH from Arizona State University last spring and remains there as a graduate research engineer. Their project explored “The Effect of Non-Flat Interfaces on System Dynamics,” and they have two months after the completion of the project to submit a paper detailing their findings.
The graduate research focused on problems related to a central issue: How can engineers predict the dynamics of an assembled structure? “The assemblies they analyzed,” Brake said, “contained strong nonlinearities that cannot be accurately predicted a priori, and can result in companies undergoing multiple rounds of design, fabrication, testing, and model updating before they can have confidence that a structure will not fail.”
This trouble-shooting process is estimated to cost companies in the U.S. some $2.5 billion annually. The graduate research problems focused on studying the effects of such manufacturing variations and developing a technique to measure interfacial contact pressure. “They applied system-identification techniques to jointed structures that had never been tried before,” Brake said, “and came up with a new theory for measuring the coupling between modes inherent in nonlinear systems.”
After earning his Ph.D. in MECH from Carnegie Mellon University in 2007, Brake joined Sandia National Laboratories as a post-doctoral researcher. He eventually was promoted to being a principal research and development scientist and engineer, and remained at Sandia until 2016, when he joined the Rice faculty.
At Sandia, Brake founded and directed the Nonlinear Mechanics and Dynamics (NOMAD) Institute, the immediate precursor to ND-CSI. Brake serves as secretary of the ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineering) Research Committee on the Mechanics of Jointed Structures
Funding for the program was provided by the Faculty Initiatives Fund, the Department of MECH at Rice and the dean’s office in the George R. Brown School of Engineering. Organizing the program with Brake are Christoph Schwingshackl of the Imperial College, London; Matt Allen of the University of Wisconsin, Madison; and Malte Krack of the University of Stuttgart.