Where to find her:
- Twitter and Instagram: @fyfluiddynamics (professional) and @aerognome (personal)
- Bachelor of Science in Aerospace Engineering, Case Western Reserve University, 2006
- Master of Science in Aerospace Engineering, Cornell University, 2009
- Ph.D in Aerospace Engineering, Texas A&M University, 2014
Current Job Title:
- Founder and Editor, FYFD
- Owner, Sharp Science Communication Consulting, LLC
What experience first got you interested in science and is that field the same one you went on to pursue?
Some of my earliest memories are tied up with scientific curiosity about the world. My mother used bathtime to teach me Archimedes’ Principle, and my first chemistry lesson came when I asked her why people sometimes called water H2O. She explained that, if I could look closely enough, water would look like Mickey Mouse, with two little hydrogens sticking to a larger oxygen.
My scientific inquiries continued as I grew. I spent one afternoon obsessed over the question of whether everyone perceived the same colors. I was wearing a shirt with multi-colored stripes and went to my mother (again!) asking her to name the color of each one. She patiently did so while I got more and more frustrated. I’d realized that I could be pointing to a blue stripe, which she would call blue, even if the color she perceived in her mind was the one I’d call red. I couldn’t figure out a way around it, and that might have been my first failure in science.
My specific scientific interests varied over time. I went through phases of geology, paleontology, and astronomy before I settled on the idea of aerospace engineering. But honestly, it wasn’t until I was in college that I discovered fluid dynamics and my love for the physics of everything that flows.
Tell me about some people who helped or inspired you along the way, in your early training and later in your career.
Clearly, my mother had an important influence on my scientific development! She was a science teacher and always encouraged my curiosity and helped me search for answers to my many questions. She created an atmosphere where scientific inquiry was a natural part of our lives.
I had some very important teachers along the way, as well. By 6th grade, I’d developed an intense mathphobia; I would literally get sick every day before math class. My math teacher intervened by excusing me from the regular lessons and giving me my very own curriculum. With her help, I was able to get past my frustrations with mathematics and find interest in the subject again. I doubt I appreciated it much at the time, but, looking back, her effort was critical to everything I’ve achieved since.
In high school, oddly enough, it was my English and history teachers who played the major role in my development. The study skills, critical thinking, and writing advice they gave me are all a part of how I work today.
When I finally discovered fluid dynamics, my undergraduate advisor – who would eventually become my doctoral advisor – became an important mentor. He taught both the lab courses and the first dedicated fluid dynamics course in our department, so it’s fair to say that most of my fundamental skills in the subject come from him.
Can you tell me about any moments of doubt you had as a student or early in your career and how you dealt with it?
I had many doubts during my first couple years of engineering. I didn’t find my technical classes engaging or thought-provoking, especially compared to the classes I was taking in the humanities. (I spent my first three years of college dual-majoring in aerospace and German.) I asked myself many times if I really wanted to do engineering, and I think it was mostly stubborn determination that kept me in the major until I finally took that fluid dynamics course! I’m convinced that stubbornness has been a crucial trait for me; I wouldn’t have made it through graduate school without it.
Speaking of graduate school, I dealt with a lot of doubt there, too. I changed directions and schools midway through, which was a tough decision on a personal level because it meant committing to years of a long-distance relationship with my then-boyfriend, now-husband. After that move, I found myself in the frustrating situation of waiting years to get access to the facility I needed for my work. My coping mechanisms were science communication through my blog, FYFD, and pouring myself into bicycle racing. I don’t know how many thousands of miles I rode during my years in Texas, but they were an integral part of my PhD.
Can you share two or three surprising twists or turns in your early scientific training and your later career path.
One of the biggest twists for me came about three years after I’d begun FYFD. I had submitted a talk about the website for an educational session at our big annual conference, but sequestration cuts (thanks, 2013!) meant that the grant money that would have funded my travel disappeared overnight. In response, I asked my readers to crowdfund my trip to the conference and was stunned when they pledged the money I needed in less than 24 hours. That was my first hint of what my site meant beyond the confines of my daily academic circle. The next hint came at the conference itself, where I – still a grad student and accustomed to the anonymity that brought – gave my FYFD talk to an overflowing room. At the time, it was probably the largest crowd I’d ever addressed at once.
But even that experience wasn’t enough to convince me that I had a future in science communication. (I’m pretty sure I still hadn’t heard the term “science communication” by that point.) When I finished my degree, I took an industry job, chosen in part for the benefit of allowing my fiancé and I to live in the same place. I carried on with blogging as best I could while working full-time and planning our wedding, but I found the situation increasingly uncomfortable.
Eventually, I saw two possible paths ahead of me: one in which I continued growing in this technical career at my company, and one where I abandoned the safety of an established job to pursue an uncertain path in science communication. That wasn’t a decision I made alone; my husband’s support and encouragement were vital. But ultimately I decided that many people could make the technical contributions I was making, but no one was taking a similar role to mine when it came to communicating fluid dynamics. I chose the uncertain path because I believed it would offer more opportunities to improve the world.
Can you give some examples of how you have incorporated your non scientific interests into your work.
If you had asked me in college why I was spending hours writing fiction and making wallpapers in Photoshop, I probably would have shrugged and called it a stress-relieving distraction. Fifteen years later, I consider time was well spent. All that practice writing taught me how to structure explanations logically and concisely, and it gave me the perspective to analyze my own communication process and turn it into fodder for the training and workshops I provide.
As for Photoshop, it gave me a strong basis for teaching myself video editing and animation, skills which I use both in my own work and in that I produce for clients. I’m not sure that I would have had the confidence to tackle that if I hadn’t already cut my teeth on image editing years before.
Is there some advice you could you share from your own experience to help someone with a science degree who is just starting off on their own career path.
Don’t let yourself be confined by the views of those around you. During graduate school, I received plenty of snide remarks about the time I was spending on science communication and other interests, but ultimately, that work opened up a new and unexpected career path for me. It allowed me to establish my own scientific identity and credibility, as all scientists must do.
Those pursuits also helped me stay sane during some of the most stressful years of my life. So I highly recommend holding on to your “non-scientific” interests. They keep you well-rounded, and you never know when they’ll come in handy down the line!