Reader Questions

Reader Question: How to Get Started in Fluid Dynamics

unboundid-deactivated20131116 asks:

Hi. I’m a freshman engineering student at UCSD, and I was hoping to get more into fluid dynamics. Could you possibly give a quick shake-down of what I should look into if I’m just kind of starting? I want to either work in studying specifically fluid dynamics or in studying interactions of oil and petroleum.

Glad to hear that you’re interested in fluid mechanics!  I usually answer these kind of questions privately, but I’m going to go ahead and publish my answer here because I think the advice is useful for any undergraduates interested in fluids.

First of all, most engineering courses of study won’t cover fluid mechanics–outside of pipe flow–until the junior or senior-level courses. This is because, unlike many other engineering topics, fluid mechanics relies heavily on foundational material in other subjects. Although fluid mechanics is still essentially F = ma, writing and manipulating the fundamental equations requires advanced calculus. So you will definitely benefit from paying a lot of attention in your math courses, especially vector calculus and differential equations. I also highly recommend learning to solve differential equations numerically using tools like Matlab or Mathematica. These are super useful skills for just about any form of engineering, but they can really pay off in fluid mechanics.

Now, while this classroom work is very important, you don’t have to wait until you’ve finished four semesters of calculus and physics before getting into fluid mechanics. Look up the professors at your school and the research they do.  Find some topics/projects you want to learn more about, and go meet with those professors. In my experience, professors are willing to have undergraduates–yes, even freshmen–volunteer in their labs. I can’t guarantee that you’ll get paid, but I can tell you that you will learn a lot, especially from the graduate students you will probably be assisting. As you gain experience, you’ll gain responsibility. Right now, my research group has a sophomore preparing to be the lead on a new data collection campaign in one of our best research wind tunnels.

Many professors recruit their future graduate students this way. And, if it turns out that you don’t want to work in that lab through graduate school, you will still have a leg up getting into grad school because you’ll have significant research experience and a professor who can write you a strong recommendation, having seen your work. You could even have co-authorship on a publication, and that sort of achievement is going to look good on your resume, whether you pursue graduate school or an industrial job.

In short: talk to professors about their research and find a lab where you can become a part of that research. The earlier you do this, the more impressive the results by the time you graduate. Good luck!

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