Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering
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AEM faculty spotlight:

William Garrard

December of 2012 will mark Professor William Garrard’s 45th year in the department. During his time as Department Head, Garrard helped guide the department from one with a heavy emphasis on applied math to what he sees as more balanced between theory and engineering. He served as Department Head for 15 years, beginning in the 1990s and the advent of the internet age. What follows is a conversation with Garrard about his current research and time at AEM, as well as how technology has impacted research over the past several decades.

William Garrard

What are the types of projects that interest you currently?
I like to work on projects that have application to real world problems in aerospace. One such project is one that I did with Graham Candler and his students on the parachute for the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) which was launched in 2011. MSL will be the largest mass that has ever been landed on Mars. The parachute will be operating supersonically. This is the same type of parachute that has been used in all successful Mars missions, but none of the previous parachutes have been this big or opened at such high speed.

What was the department like when you joined it?
When I came to the department, I would say it was almost an applied math department. There was very little research which I thought was engineering; a lot of it was applied mechanics and applied math. Now there’s nothing wrong with that, but I’ve always felt we should do more engineering-oriented research. As it has happened, that is where the funding has moved. When I started as department head, we had the lowest per capita research expenditures of any engineering department in IT, but now we’re close to the top. Not that I was personally responsible for that, but when I hired faculty I tried to hire people I thought would move us in that direction.

How has computer use changed the way research is done?
People were obviously using computers way back then – my PhD thesis from the 1960s had some pretty extensive computer simulations – but I don’t think anybody anticipated the level at which we would be able to use computers to do, for example, fluid mechanics modeling. That is just beyond anything anybody except perhaps the most visionary would have thought. Our experimental research has declined as we have more research that is computationally based. We have much less pencil and paper research, where you would literally sit down with a pencil and paper and derive equations, proofs, and things like that.

How has the balance between the fields of Fluid Mechanics, Solid Mechanics, and Aerospace Engineering changed?
I think we have a much better balance in the areas than when I first came here. That’s not to say what we were doing at that time was bad – the pendulum of engineering had swung to applied math and theory as opposed to actual engineering, now it has swung back. Those are the kinds of things I like to do, so I’m happy with that. Most of our faculty members do excellent research and most of it has some identifiable application, even though it may be somewhat theoretical.
When I came here, the biggest area was fluid mechanics, solid mechanics was second, and there were only a few of us working in what was called dynamical systems and controls. We had a person who did parachute research – Dr. Heinrich – whose work I basically inherited. He literally dropped dead one day after receiving a very prestigious award from the AIAA. The aerospace stuff was looked down on back then, and that’s changed. Long before I came here the department was extremely applications-oriented. They actually built airplanes in the department when John Akerman was Head. The department was probably too applied; there was not enough engineering science and analysis, and more just ‘well lets build it and see if it works.’

Why did you get involved in this field?
I can’t remember when I haven’t been fascinated by flight. None of my degrees are in aero. My undergrad is mechanical and Ph.D.  is in mechanics. My father who was a civil engineer told me that if I went into aero I’d never have a stable job, so I sort of did what I was told. I majored in mechanical, but I ended up doing what I was most interested in. Although I had offers to go to mechanical engineering departments elsewhere, I chose to come here in Aerospace.

Last Modified: Wednesday, 27-Jun-2012 13:21:34 CDT -- this is in International Standard Date and Time Notation