August 22, 2012

MIT Sea Grant's Brenden Epps Assumes Professorship at Dartmouth College

By Lillie Paquette
MIT Sea Grant College Program

CAMBRIDGE, MA - AUGUST 22, 2012 - After two-and-a-half years as a post-doctoral research engineer with MIT Sea Grant, Brenden Epps has accepted a position as Assistant Professor of Engineering at Dartmouth College’s Thayer School of Engineering, where he will begin teaching this fall.

Epps, an avid marathon runner and passionate lover of the great outdoors, began his MIT career as a graduate student in the fall of 2004 after a 6-month wilderness backpacking trek of the Appalachian Trail. He recalls arriving at Boston’s South Station on a bright September day - ragged, unshaven, and sun-beaten, and excitedly making his way to campus. His first stop: the lawn in front of the famous MIT dome. Staking his mini tripod into the grass, Epps posed for a celebratory self-portrait to mark the end of his wilderness adventure and the beginning of this new stretch along the path of his journey.

Epps spent the next six years diving head on into the exciting world of fluid dynamics, and by 2010 he had successfully completed his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering.

Ever since he was a little boy, Epps says he was fascinated with fluid dynamics, and with aerodynamics in particular. “I used to love flying in an airplane and watching through the window in fascinated astonishment as clouds flowed over the aircraft wings in flight,” recalls Epps. He wanted to know everything about how fluids flow, “…from the shape of Hershey Kisses to the currents in the oceans… basically anything related to fluid and aero dynamics,” which Epps explains naturally led to a strong interest in marine propellers and wind turbines.

While pursuing his doctorate, Epps used experiments and simulations to study the propulsive forces generated by swimming fish and spinning propellers. Among his various undertakings, he worked on complex projects in developing and designing analysis tools for marine propellers and energy-harvesting turbines.

Epps took his passion to further levels as a post-doc with the MIT Sea Grant College Program at the invitation of the director – the naval architect guru Chryssostomos Chryssostomidis. Chrys, as colleagues and friends affectionately refer to the director, soon became a key mentor to Epps. “Chrys mentored me with regards to naval architecture, marine propeller design, and academic research in general,” says Epps. “He has also taught me how to be a mentor myself, by providing me the opportunity to advise four graduate students and then coaching me with feedback on my performance as an advisor. In addition, Chrys has helped me to learn the grant proposal process.”

One of Epps’ main research accomplishments at MIT Sea Grant was his ongoing work on OpenProp, an open-sourced computational tool for the design and analysis of optimized propellers and turbines. Epps explains, “The fact that we are making this an open-source code is a big deal as it allows people to learn from the code and modify it to better suit their needs and/or improve upon it.” The tool’s originator is Maine Maritime Academy’s Richard Kimball, a visiting professor at MIT when Epps was a student, who became another important mentor to Epps. Kimball originally developed another code called MPVL (Matlab Propeller Vortex Lattice) as a course project in MIT course 2.23 Hydrofoils and Propellers. “When I was a teaching assistant for that class with Rich, I took the ball and ran with it,” recalls Epps, who ended up rewriting MPVL from the ground up, resulting in OpenProp v1. “Rich and I had dreamed of a code that could be used for both propeller and turbine design,” explains Epps. That dream came to fruition during Epps' tenure at MIT Sea Grant, during which time he completed OpenProp v2, which currently has over 19,000 page views, though Epps admits he hasn’t gotten around to tracking individual users yet. Subsequent major improvements to the code will soon be released with OpenProp v3.

The son of applied math and physics professors, Epps says he always dreamed of becoming a professor himself. His 6-month hike along Appalachian Trail before enrolling at MIT provided Epps with much time to contemplate and dream about the future. He recalls his experience along one portion of trail that runs through the Dartmouth campus in Hanover, NH. Comfortably bundled in his sleeping bag in the basement of a Dartmouth fraternity house where he sought shelter for the night, Epps mused, “This would be an amazing place to teach.” Epps says he immediately checked himself about becoming too presumptuous. “I told myself not to get my hopes too high, because I was aware that even if I worked very hard and attained all the requisite qualifications, there still was no guarantee of such an opportunity.” The vision that night, however, motivated him throughout graduate school. “If the stars align,” Epps thought as he drifted off to sleep, “I’ll be back here someday.”

Eight years later, equipped with an M.S and Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from MIT and two-and a half years of post-doctoral work at MIT Sea Grant, Epps bids farewell to Cambridge and sets off to meet his dream come true in Hanover. He is excited for the opportunity to use the invaluable training and experience he accumulated during his time at MIT to pass down to another generation of engineering students. Epps is scheduled to teach a graduate course in applied mathematics this fall, and an undergraduate course in fluid dynamics during the winter quarter. Being that his strongest desire is to help his students apply their learning to the real world, Epps says his biggest challenge now is figuring out how to balance the disbursement of required versus most-useful knowledge to his pupils. His other main challenge he says is convincing his wife Wendy, a native of Southern California whom he met when they were both MIT graduate students, that New Hampshire winters aren’t that much worse than Massachusetts winters.


Edit contributions by Judy Pederson and Gayle Sherman

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(L-R) Brenden Epps' self portrait on arrival to MIT in 2004, Epps at work in the lab at MIT Sea Grant, Epp's final day in Cambridge

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