School of Engineering (Okanagan campus)
What is your educational and professional background?
I am a materials scientist by training. I received my bachelor's from Cornell University in materials science and engineering (MSE), followed by my doctorate in MSE from the University of Michigan. After graduating, I was recruited as Vice President of Technology at HygraTek, a paint/coatings start-up company in Ann Arbor, Michigan. My time at HygraTek was brief (but fun!), and I joined UBC about seven months later.
I love puzzles. Always have. To me, engineering is just puzzle-solving without anyone explicitly telling you the rules. It’s open-ended, but at the same time highly constrained. And the more constraints, the more likely your solution is innovative. Make this thing stronger? Easy. But boring. Make it stronger, lighter, transparent and derived from plants? Now we’re talking.
UBC is, for me, the perfect storm of a school. It’s a place where I can be proud to call myself a faculty member. It’s a place where some of the best and brightest students will pass through my classroom. It’s a place where my research is valued. It’s a school where I can meet with local aerospace companies one minute, then hike a few steps outside and feel alone in the wilderness the next. And, having lived essentially all of my life in the United States, it’s a place where my personal values align with the mission of the school, the province and the country.
What are your research/teaching interests and current projects?
Every important process occurs at an interface. Think about it. From sunlight to solar electricity. From wind on an airplane wing to flight. From touching an infected object to the spread of disease. Controlling interfaces therefore enables the ability to alter a host of disparate physical processes. My lab investigates how to modify interfaces to control engineering properties. One of our projects involves designing ice-phobic surfaces, materials that ice cannot adhere to, for use on your car windshields, airplane wings, boat hulls and turbine blades. Another project investigates how waterproof materials can reduce fuel usage for naval vessels. A third project looks into preventing malaria by developing anti-mosquito paint. In every project we work on, an engineering problem is attacked by altering an interface to affect performance. The interdisciplinary nature of interfaces means we get to work on many different things at once, which is extremely fun!
How do you hope your work will impact society/students?
We always try to remember the big picture of our research. Eliminating malaria, reducing fossil fuel dependence, enhancing the energy efficient of renewables — these are the impacts we hope to further through our work. If I can reduce the number of road accidents in Canada by preventing ice from sticking to roads, I’m happy. If I can make potable water more accessible in impoverished nations by preventing organisms from adhering to filtration membranes, I’m happy. And if I can train a few dozen scientists to carry on this beacon of impactful interfacial modification, I’m ecstatic.
How do you think the field of engineering will be different 100 years from now?
I think what will be done will be essentially the same, but how it’s visualized will be radically different. Many of the problems we’re solving today aren’t new, but the way in which we solve them is changing. Look up any older scientific paper, even from the 90s, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a microscope image. Now we have the tools to visualize every engineering problem in high resolution, even on the atomic scale. Videos are starting to be accepted as valid pieces of experimental data. Just think what the advancements in virtual reality, augmented reality and computer processing power will lead to in terms of data visualization within the next century. I’d expect the engineers of 2118 to step inside a dataset to really understand what’s going on. I’d expect them to be able to mould a virtual object in their hands, at any length scale, and then instantly print it in 3D. I’d expect them to have meetings with holographic partners around the globe as if they were in the same room. But the problems they’ll be solving: cancer, energy efficiency, sustainability, food production, public safety and so on. And these have been the problems of engineers since we’ve had names for them.
What advice would you give to someone considering a career in engineering?
To quote a famous footwear company, “just do it”. Engineering is just problem solving. It’s a foundation for how to rationally attack a problem. It’s a crash course in critical thinking. How many fulfilling jobs are there that don’t require that basic skillset? Engineering isn’t some esoteric, math-heavy voodoo. It’s just giving you the tools to independently solve problems. Every employer, every company, every colleague wants that. Get an engineering degree, and if you don’t decide to be an engineer, fine. You’ll be so far ahead of your non-engineer peers you’ll be amazed.
What is your favourite book/movie/album/food/sport/leisure activity?
Favourite book(s): The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee and The Nature of the Physical World by Sir Arthur Eddington
Favourite movie: Interstellar
Favourite album: Strength by DJ Nosferatu
Favourite food: Sushi (but the good stuff)
Favourite (only) sport: soccer
Favourite leisure activity: spending time with my beautiful, amazing wife, Alice
What are you passionate about outside work?
Everything. Life’s too short to not go 110 per cent. Espresso, cooking, biking, hiking, reading, 90s hip hop, Dutch techno, string theory, modern art, carpentry, philosophy, you name it. I try to be passionate about everything I do except sleep (I hate sleeping).