News, Science & Research

New engineering lab studies physical characteristics of fluids

Harris Lab explores fluids at small scale, facilitating scientific understanding through art

Contributing Writer
Wednesday, November 1, 2017

High-speed cameras record a water droplet landing on a fluid surface — an example of the types of experiments in the Harris Lab that promote greater scientific understanding through visualization.

Set to move into its new space in the Engineering Research Center building next spring, the Harris Lab is the latest addition to the School of Engineering. Heading the Harris Lab is its namesake, Assistant Professor of Engineering Dan Harris, who earned his PhD in applied mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2015 and joined the University faculty this fall.

In his lab, Harris will explore the physics of micro-fluids an applications in building practical devices. The team is also interested in visualizing scientific phenomena as a means for aesthetic beauty and public engagement; Harris’ award-winning photography has been recognized by the National Science Foundation and Popular Science. Harris, who traces his interest in visual art to his artistic-minded family, said that art is a means to start the conversation.

“If I came in and described the technical details of the application, it’s easy to lose people quickly,” he said. “But when leading with something like an image, … I feel like all of us can appreciate art at some level. I think that really opens the conservation and gets (people) interested in the applications of science.”

Instead of performing computer simulations of the equations governing the behavior of fluids, the Harris Lab creates models through actual experiments. Using high-speed cameras, the team records near-instantaneous phenomena — like two water droplets fusing or particles bouncing off surfaces — and uses software to extract data from the footage.

Harris is a “real master of using these enhanced visualization techniques to help teach science around fluid mechanics,” said Lawrence Larson, dean of engineering and professor of engineering.

The lab currently consists of a post-doctorate student and three undergraduates, including Annika MacEwan ’18 and Isabelle Bauman ’19, who work together to study the trajectories of particles bouncing off of water surfaces.

Harris likes to build laboratory equipment himself using the 3-D printer in the lab, he said. His research “has been focused on not only the science itself, but also designing the appropriate equipment to answer these questions,” he added. MacEwan and Bauman are also building all of their testing equipment from scratch using computer design programs and 3-D printers.

Professor of Engineering Kenneth Breuer ’82, who was appointed by the dean of the School of Engineering to chair the hiring committee for Dr. Harris, said that Harris’ research “is something that we thought would work well at Brown, so we were very excited when we were able to bring him to Brown.”

The University “is definitely making a statement by hiring Dan Harris, who is known and has been recognized by his presentation of science,” Bauman said. “Visualization really impacts the way in which we see and think about data, and this is definitely something that engages people in science.”

To further Harris’ engineering research and artistic vision, he plans “to collaborate with all of the wonderful resources and the artistic community at Brown, and see how I can learn from them to improve what I do,” he said.

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