Have you ever wondered how sea lions are such good swimmers–able to do what seem like acrobatics in the water? If so, Dr. Megan Leftwich is looking for that answer as well. As an assistant professor of engineering and applied science at George Washington University, she studies fluid mechanics, thermal science and energy, mechanical engineering, propulsion, and biomedical engineering. The principle investigator of the Leftwich Lab at GWU she leads a team of students and postdoc researchers in exploring biologically inspired fluid flows and using what they learn to inspire engineering solutions to problems.
As a teacher Leftwich understands the importance of providing opportunities for undergraduate students to do actual research and take on leadership roles–things that she makes sure those working in her lab have a chance to do. Three of the lab’s current projects are the wake dynamics of vertical axis wind turbines in standard and complex configurations, the fluid dynamics of human birth, and the hydrodynamics of pinniped swimming.
Vertical axis wind turbines are used in areas that have less space available and the Leftwich team is testing to determine if the turbine has the same aero-dynamic structure as a spinning cylinder despite a significant increase in geometric complexity. In terms of investigating the fluid dynamics of human birth the team is interested in the fundamental physical processes during the final stage of labor and delivery, including the interaction between the amniotic fluid, pulsing uterus, and the fetus.
Finally in collaboration with the Smithsonian National Zoo, the team studies the unsteady mechanisms that produce aquatic propulsion including tails, fins, flippers, and feet. Using observational data of the California Sea Lions living at the zoo, Leftwich is endeavoring to extract their swimming kinematics. By using laser scans of the front flippers of the sea lions the lab is able to 3-D print silicon models and test how changes in the design of the flipper can change how the water reacts to the motion. Leftwich intends to use this information to design better underwater vehicles that are quieter and are much more maneuverable.
Written by Angela Goad