Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Writer: Shanna Relford
Professor and GRA Spent Summer in China
University of Tennessee Space Institute (UTSI) Professor Joe Majdalani and Graduate Research Assistant Tony Saad spent six weeks in China this summer collaborating with scientists at Peking University (PKU) in Beijing. After about 12 hours confined to their seats on the plane, Majdalani and Saad arrived in Beijing on June 20 to a warm welcoming committee and a sweltering heat wave.
The pair of UTSI representatives were escorted to their hotel and later treated to a dinner hosted by Zhen-Su She, the director of PKU’s State Key Laboratory for Turbulence Research, where Majdalani and Saad would be working. “I was struck by the tradition and respect that is so ingrained in Chinese culture,” said Dr. Majdalani. “The relationship of guest and host is still very formalized there and I found it wonderful the way they greeted us at the airport, treated us to a welcome dinner and made a special trip to see us and say goodbye on our final day,” he added.
The trip was funded by an International Research and Education in Engineering (IREE) grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that Dr. Majdalani had won last year. “While the budget for this program [IREE] is less than one percent of NSF’s budget, the impact is staggering,” said Dr. Majdalani. According to Majdalani, the IREE program is increasing NSF’s presence internationally by sending roughly 200- 300 U.S. scientists to locations all over the world to learn what other countries are doing and bring the best of science and knowledge from around the world back to the U.S. The program is designed for cross-fertilization; other nations value the visits from American scientists not only to learn from our current developments, but also as an opportunity to sharpen their English language skills. Dr. Majdalani stated that he is deeply grateful for the support received from Drs. Win Aung and Eduardo Misawa with the National Science Foundation.
Both Majdalani and Saad were excited about the chance to work in Beijing with the elite faculty and students of Peking University. “PKU is the MIT of China,” said Dr. Majdalani. “PKU’s Mechanical Engineering Department is very strong in the field of thermo-fluids, which forms the foundation of propulsion, a research area heavily pursued at UTSI,” he explained. According to Dr. Majdalani, PKU’s reputation as a very prestigious school stems in large part from its admissions process. In China, everyone must take a national exam and only the most exceptional scores will be accepted at PKU. These individuals are considered the elite of the country, regardless of background, wealth or lack thereof.
Saad said of the trip, “On the intellectual level, I had the opportunity to meet some of the best scientists in China and a plethora of hard working researchers who participated in our collaborative efforts.” He went on, “I was impressed by the strong sense of teamwork that the professors and their students showed. The graduate students are very skilled in their areas of research in addition to having a very strong background in mathematics.”
While in China, Professor Jie-Zhi Wu presented Dr. Majdalani with the Pei-Yuan Chou Commemorate Plaque for his outstanding contribution in the field of Fluid Mechanics. “I was immensely honored to receive this award named for the founder of PKU,” said Dr. Majdalani. “I really wasn’t expecting it.” Dr. Majdalani presented two full-day short courses on Modeling of Unsteady Oscillatory Waves and Hybrid Core Flows and numerous two-hour presentations to scientists, faculty and students from PKU, several other colleges, universities and local industry. Saad also gave a presentation of his own, in addition to assisting Dr. Majdalani with the many presentations that he gave at the request of their Chinese hosts.
A symbiotic venture, Majdalani and Saad also benefited from learning about the work that is being done at PKU. “Dr. She, the director of the lab, is a multi-dimensional individual and a tremendously important figure in the world of turbulence,” said Dr. Majdalani. “He was coaching the Chinese Olympic Kayaking Team while we were there and he has recently written a book on how to coach using principles of turbulence and engineering to help kayakers understand the movements of water.” “A lot of what they are working on there is fundamental physics,” said Dr. Majdalani, “the kind of basic science that ends up being taught in textbooks.” “They’re really in an enviable situation as they’re funded by the government, so they’re not tied down to answering a specific problem for a company and they don’t have proprietary information, everything is open literature,” Majdalani explained.
Professor Jie-Zhi Wu spent one entire day presenting the work of his research team. Professor Wu, a part-time professor for both UTSI and PKU, is termed a “flying professor” in China, since he spends six months of the year in Beijing and the other half in the U.S. Drs. Majdalani and Wu hope to write research papers together and have made plans to collaborate in several research areas. In fact, they hope to draft a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between PKU and UTSI to allow professors from both universities to share information and to pursue the possibility of securing funding for collaborative projects from the Chinese government and NSF. PKU’s Dean of Engineering Shi-Yi Chen plans to visit UTSI in November when Professor Wu is back in the States to follow-up on the MOU process.
Majdalani and Saad left Beijing just one short week before the city flooded with visitors for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. “The trip to China was a very rich experience in my career on both intellectual and cultural levels,” said Saad. “I had the chance to learn about the history of China as well as the social practices of the Chinese people. I also acquired some language skills since I had a daily “hands-on” crash course in Mandarin Chinese: from going to the cafeteria to buying groceries and asking for directions! The most important part was learning how to count, which allowed me to bargain more effectively.” Dr. Majdalani stated that the trip was well worth the time invested and the prospect for continued collaborations between UTSI and PKU is strong.