Liquid research solidifies grad’s place in the academic community

Posted on Wednesday, October 21, 2015

By Brandon Gillet

Christina Vanderwel is no stranger to hard work, having recently received her doctorate in mechanical engineering here at uOttawa, with straight A-pluses in her courses.

Vanderwel’s research focuses on fluid mechanics, which Oxford defines as “the study of forces and flow within fluids.” It can be applied to the study of air pollution, meteorology, ocean mixing and many other engineering areas.

“The title of my thesis was ‘Turbulent Diffusion in Uniformly Sheared Flow.’ It studied the mechanisms of mixing in turbulent flows,” said Vanderwel.

She performed experiments in a water tunnel located in the basement of Colonel By Hall, creating a “uniform turbulent shear flow,” which is basically a fluctuating water flow created by force.

Vanderwel would then release a plume of fluorescent dye into the turbulent flow and study how it dispersed. She used lasers to light up the dye and measure the velocity and concentration fields of the flow. Her experiments showed the rate at which the dye spread through water.

Perseverance and just rewards

Vanderwel’s hard work and perseverance earned her the University’s Pierre Laberge Prize for the best PhD thesis in science and engineering. And that’s not all.

“I published three articles in leading journals in my field, as well as two articles in international conferences in Italy and Australia,” said Vanderwel.  “However, I was also heavily involved in working as a teaching assistant throughout my studies and volunteering for the mechanical engineering graduate student association.”

Since she submitted her thesis in the summer of 2014, she has been working as a postdoctoral fellow in in England, funded by a Marie Curie Fellowship from the European Union.

“I was offered a permanent position at the University of Southampton as a lecturer, the same level as assistant professor in Canada, which I officially start on November 1,” said Vanderwel.

A journey such as Vanderwel’s can’t be completed without support. Vanderwel recognizes how the University of Ottawa has helped her in her path to academic excellence.

“I am most grateful to my supervisor, Dr. Stavros Tavoularis, for his guidance and support,” she said. “But I'd also like to give a special thanks to the Mechanical Engineering Machine Shop in the Colonel By building, who often went above and beyond in helping me design and build my experiments, and who are an indispensable resource to the faculty.”

According to Vanderwel, knowing why you do what you do keeps you focused on your goals and open to new ways of thinking through the long PhD process.

“I think perhaps the most important thing I learned was perspective,” she said. “Completing a PhD is tough work, and gathering the motivation to continue studying takes continual effort. However, no matter how tough it got, I found that with the right perspective, I could remind myself of everything I had accomplished and the goals I was striving towards.”


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