Dr Ugo Piomelli
Mechanical & Materials Engineering
His Childhood Fascination Turned into a Career
by Meredith Dault
May 11, 2011
A lot of kids are fascinated by airplanes, but not all of them turn that fascination into a career. As a boy growing up in Italy, however, Dr. Ugo Piomelli knew there was something to them. “I liked watching them,” he recalls with a smile, “I liked the shapes, I liked how they worked.” Rather than dreaming of becoming a pilot, however, Dr. Piomelli, set his sights on aerospace engineering.
Now teaching in the Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at Queen’s, Dr. Piomelli’s work has since evolved into the world of fluid dynamics. “That’s just a fancy way to say aerodynamics,” he explains, “but it also includes rivers and arteries -- anything that has a flow ( water, air, ketchup, gas or oil!)”
He describes his work as having two components: analysis and design. “You take a problem, and you try to understand what makes it tick,” he explains, citing river dunes as an example. “Rivers have ripples at the bottom. Why are they that shape? And how does that affect things like bridge erosion?” While there isn’t much that can be done to change the design of a river dune, he says looking at the flow can suggest ways to make changes to bridge construction in rivers.
Dr. Piomelli, who came to Queen’s in 2008, says he knew he wanted to become a professor while he was still an undergraduate student. He says he was struggling with a difficult concept and asked his professor to explain it. “I still didn’t understand it,” says Dr. Piomelli, who attended graduate school in the United States, “so I asked him to explain it again using different words. He explained it seven times! And that’s when I decided I wanted to be a professor like him. He has the patience and creativity to come up with seven ways to say the same thing -- which is hard enough if you’re doing it in english, but he was doing it in science!”
After graduating with his doctoral degree, Dr. Piomelli promptly found an academic job at the University of Maryland, where he spent 20 years, doing research with NASA and the US Air Force (among others). But when a colleague at Queen’s approached him about the possibility of a move to Canada, Dr. Piomelli says he knew he was ready for a change. “Queen’s recruited me and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” he says with a laugh.
When he arrived in Kingston in 2008, Dr. Piomelli was awarded two research chairs: the Canada Research Chair in Computational Turbulence, and the Centre for Advanced Computing-Sun Microsystems Chair in Computational Science. Besides money to set up a lab, Dr. Piomelli says he was also given lots of freedom to do research outside of his “core competencies.”
Dr. Piomelli is currently supervising seven graduate students (two Master’s students, five PhD students, and one post-doctoral fellow) from around the world. “We have two Canadians, one Italian (who incidentally went to the same high school as Dr. Piomelli!), three Iranians and two Chinese,” he says with a smile, noting that two followed him from the University of Maryland to Queen’s. “That was really one of the high moments of my career,” he says.
In fact, Dr. Piomelli says that supervising graduate students is one of his favourite parts of the job because of the “one on one interaction with bright motivated students.” Describing himself as a very “hands-on supervisor,” he says he works closely with his students. “I show up at the lab every day, and I follow their progress. And that, of course, has advantages and disadvantages -- my students are less independent, but more focused...I think they make progress faster.”
While Dr. Piomelli jokes that he only has “10 years of good ideas left,” he says he’s happy to be in a place where he has the freedom to explore new things: “I’ve done environmental work with people in Civil Engineering, I’ve done work on aneurysms with people in physiology, and I’m doing work with colleagues in the States. I also have a project with a colleague in Spain and one in the Netherlands.”
For Dr. Piomelli, it’s the academic life he dreamed of. “I’ve been in university since I was 18 years old,” he laughs. “I really don’t think there is any better life.”
For more on Dr. Piomelli, visit http://me.queensu.ca/people/piomelli/