Editor's note: At the 17th International Conference of the ISTVS in Blacksburg, Virginia, U.S., at which we were celebrating 50 years of ISTVS, there was also a great representation in what we might call the new guard, active younger members doing exciting #terramechanics research. We connected a couple of pairs up to interview each other. Daisy Huang of the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Cor-jacques Kat of the University of Pretoria interviewed each other!
Daisy Huang, as interviewed by Cor-jacques Kat
Let’s start at the beginning. When did you decide that you would like to become an engineer? Was there anything that inspired you?
From a very young age, I wanted to be either a writer or a biologist. I still write, but I gave up biology when I arrived at university as a freshman and saw how very many chemistry courses were in a biology curriculum. I am dreadful with chemistry and almost failed it in high school, so there was no way I was going to pursue that path. I loved my physics class in high school, so I thought about switching my major to physics, but I also knew that that would be committing me to going directly to grad school as there aren’t very many jobs for folks with only a bachelor’s degree in physics. I wanted to work for a few years right after undergrad, so I chose mechanical engineering as the next best option. It turned out to be an excellent fit, as most of my coursework and industry work have been enjoyable, and most of my peers have been similar to me in personality, and we get along well. I’m still in touch with my high school physics teacher and his wife; I’ve told him time and again how he led me to my current career, and he and his wife came up to visit me in Alaska last year.
From our many interesting conversations at the 2011 ISTVS Conference I understand that you are working on snow mechanics. What are you working on these days and how did you get into this field?
To put it simply, I am doing mid-scale (on the order of centimeters) mechanical testing of snow in attempt to extract mechanical properties. What makes it challenging are the logistics. As you’re probably aware, there are dozens of different types of snow. I’m only interested in the sort that folks have to drive on long-term, such as occurs here in Fairbanks. After the beautiful sparkly flakes fall to the ground, they immediately begin metamorphosing into bland-looking, uniform crystals. However visually bland they may be, they are what sit on the roads and trails all winter, and luckily for me, they maintain fairly constant and uniform mechanical properties. So I test them both in situ, and I gather them up on cold days and bring them into my lab for storage and tightly controlled testing. Fairbanks is so cold and dry that the crystals are very "pure," i.e. they have very little liquid water content, so this is a great place to study the purest form of snow and isolate it from the other factors that vary with time or place.
How I got into this field was that I wanted to do something that was unique to my location in Alaska. I also approached another professor about doing work with him in solid state physics, but I could have done that back in the Silicon Valley, where I’m from. Snow was compelling to me because it utilizes this fantastic natural laboratory we have. And also, getting to spend some days skiing with my dogs collecting snow samples is a bonus.
How do you stay up to date with the state-of-the-art technologies and information in your field?
The number of people in my field of snow research is pretty small, and most of us are in at constant, at least tenuous contact, as we proceed with our research. I also am in contact with glaciologists and avalanche researchers. They aren’t so interested in snow behavior on roads, but we are all interested in snow and can share a lot of common ground. Also, I attend conferences, read papers, etc.
What is the most exciting project you’ve ever worked on?
Hah. I’m going to take the easy way out here and say that the most exciting projects I’ve ever worked on involved developing new process recipes when I was working at Applied Materials. The chemicals involved there were so toxic that I could have killed myself or caused a major explosion if I did something wrong and that would have been lively indeed.
What’s the most meaningful and/or rewarding aspect of being involved with engineering?
To me, the most rewarding aspect of being in engineering is that my work has immediate applicability to other people, and while the nitty-gritty details and the math might be inaccessible to nonengineers, everyone can understand the gist of what we do. We make things. We build things. We do tangible things. The output of my work, for example, will eventually be better snow tires, skis, sleds, maybe even vehicle dynamic systems. These are things that ordinary humans understand and use and benefit from. So many jobs today don’t have any tangible output, and while I realize that they still need to be done to keep the world turning, I don’t think I could do them.
Do you have a hobby that you keep yourself busy with (and balanced) outside of work?
I run 3-7 miles every morning, and I love to ski, and skijor (where my dogs, who retired from a sled team, pull me on skis). In summer, we hike and go berry picking. I have several gallons of blueberries and cranberries in my freezer right now, still waiting to be turned into jam. Although I love my field work, most of my work time is still at my desk, so I don’t really have any sedentary hobbies, other than reading, which I love. I have tons of leisure reading, besides academic papers. Right now I’m reading this: [Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes]
Which invention or engineering feat would you consider as the one thing the world can not go without? Why?
This is a tough one. I’m tempted to go way back and say the wheel or agriculture, but there were early societies that thrived and prospered without either of those things. So I’ll go further back and say language. Without communicating with each other and communicating each generation’s accomplishments to the next, we’d be nothing. The modern explosion of this, of course, is the internet. But for millenia, there were books, and that is awesome.
Daisy Huang at University of Alaska Fairbanks
Recently published on Journal of Terramechanics: Sensitivity analysis, calibration and validation of a snow indentation model, with Jonah Lee