John A. Swanson ’61, M.Eng. ’63, internationally recognized authority and innovator in the application of finite-element methods of engineering, will be honored with the 2021 Cornell Engineering Distinguished Alumni Award. Read more about Swanson ’61, M.Eng. ’63, to receive 2021 Distinguished Alumni Award
Nicole Sharp '09, Celebrated Science Communicator - Not your Typical Post-Ph.D. Path
By Erin Philipson
When Nicole Sharp ’09 started her fluid mechanics blog, FYFD, she never imagined the attention she would garner and certainly didn’t foresee her career taking the path that it did.
Sharp had always been interested in engineering growing up, specifically aerospace engineering, but she didn’t discover fluid mechanics until she was in college at Case Western Reserve University. After diving deeper into the subject with her senior capstone, she knew she wanted to pursue experimental fluid dynamics in graduate school.
A series of positive interactions with faculty in the field in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering led her to Cornell for her doctoral degree. Sharp was captivated by wind tunnels throughout her undergraduate career, so the wind tunnel in the Sibley School, the largest on campus, also helped in attracting her to the department.
“I don't have a particularly good explanation for why I was so into wind tunnels going through school, but they were just a thing that really captured my attention and imagination,” says Sharp.
Sharp ended up working in wind tunnels at every university she attended, conducting research along the way. At Cornell, Sharp studied turbulent boundary layers, specifically, what happens when you have extremely turbulent flow in a freestream. Her research was looking at the back end of the problem, where extreme turbulence causes chaos.
After completing her Master’s at Cornell, Sharp went on to pursue her Ph.D. at Texas A&M University, to ask the question, “how does turbulence start?” During this time, Sharp began to realize that there was very little discussion of fluid dynamics online and if the topic was discussed, it was poorly explained. Sharp herself hadn’t discovered that the subject existed until junior level engineering courses.
“Although it's a subject that really touches on all of our lives all the time, it's not something that a lot of people would learn about in school,” says Sharp. “Why are we making people study all this calculus and physics before we even tell them that fluid mechanics exists, especially because there is a long history of producing really interesting photos and videos, specifically in the in kind of the area of flow visualization.”
This is when her blog, FYFD, was born – with daily posts about how our everyday lives are interconnected with fluid mechanics. Later on, YouTube “explainer” videos were added to her science communicator repertoire.
“I assumed that no one was ever going to look at this,” says Sharp. “I figured I was shouting into the void, and maybe like five people would ever care. And it turned out I was wrong, because people found it and people got excited for it.”
It was when Sharp’s blog was featured in Wired Magazine’s 101 Signals that she knew she was really reaching people with her content. FYFD grew so much since its inception in 2010, that after working in industry for a few years, Sharp decided to follow her passion and pursue science communication as her full-time career. She splits her time between direct outreach through her blog and YouTube channel and her science communication business, where she consults for academics and others looking to convey their scientific work simply and coherently.
“We come up with a narrative that explains the science at an appropriate level, to be understandable to the audience they're interested in, in the space of, say, a five-minute video or a series of five-minute videos,” says Sharp.
Sharp and her work have been featured in numerous articles, podcasts and videos including Forbes, Associate Press, NPR, Physics Girl and more. Most recently, Sharp is being featured in an If/Then exhibit in Dallas, Texas that showcases more than 120 3D printed statues of female STEM innovators.