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Meet: Rabindra (Rabi) Mehta

a photo of Rabi with tennis balls

Experimental Aero-Physics Branch Chief
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA

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Who I am
I am a Branch Chief at NASA Ames Research Center, located in California’s Silicon Valley. My background is in experimental research of fluid flows as applied to the field of aeronautics, a subject popularly known as aerodynamics. I did all my schooling in England. My undergraduate degree was in aeronautical engineering after which I went to graduate school at Imperial College, London University where I specialized in fluid mechanics with emphasis on turbulence (yes, the same stuff you often experience on airplanes). My Ph.D. thesis was on the study of flow through the various components of a small low-speed wind tunnel (the kind that lots of schools now want to construct). I have written several articles that give "design rules" for small low-speed wind tunnels:

As an offshoot, during the last couple of years I was at Imperial College, I started doing some wind tunnel research on cricket ball aerodynamics --- basically, a study of why a cricket ball curves through the air (much like a curveball in baseball) and what parameters can affect its flight. That is how I got started in the exciting field sports ball aerodynamics. After I moved to California, I expanded my interest to the aerodynamics of baseballs, golf balls, soccer balls and volleyballs. As part of a NASA educational project for school children, we tested tennis balls in wind tunnels to determine their aerodynamic properties: http://wings.avkids.com/Tennis/index.html

I have written several articles on sports ball aerodynamics and regularly present my research on this topic at conferences all around the world.

My Career Journey
I was born in Nairobi, Kenya, which lies on the east coast of Africa. I went to high school and beyond in England. I came to NASA as a National Research Council Post-Doctoral Fellow in 1981 after which I stayed on as a contractor through Stanford University. I was hired by Ames as a Senior Research Scientist in December of 1996. The person who influenced me the most towards where I am today is my graduate advisor, Peter Bradshaw, who later moved to Stanford University. A research interest that I pursued at Ames initially revolved around the experimental study of streamwise vortex/boundary layer interactions. This led to a deep interest in the three-dimensional structure of free-shear layers, such as mixing layers and wakes. We conducted a series of experiments in a specially designed wind tunnel over a period of about 10 years. Later on I became involved in research on a relatively new measurement technique, which uses special paints to measure pressures on a model surface. The surface pressures are extremely important because they give the lift and drag forces on the model and they can also indicate design problems. The paint is excited by a special light source, and by measuring the intensity of the emitted light, we can determine the pressures on the model. Since 1998, I have been more involved in the management of our experimental group.

Career Likes and Dislikes
The main positive part is that in a research career you can work independently and there is the opportunity of doing what you want. You come up with new ideas or new ventures, and within reason, you can pursue them. I have been lucky enough to be able to do that for most of my research life. There is the sense of a challenge to uncover something that has not been uncovered before. Also, I love the fact that we do not have to dress up (in suits) every day. The main concern is that with research budgets constantly under pressure and the high cost of living in this area, it will be harder to draw young researchers, which does not bode well for the future.

The Early Years
At the risk of sounding corny, I have loved planes since I was a little kid. My interest was maintained partly by looking at books and partly by going to the Nairobi airport to watch planes take-off and land. Like many small boys, my real dream was to become a commercial airline pilot. However, once I joined the Royal Air Force as a reserve (while I was in college) I soon realized that the only fun-flying was in fact as an air force pilot and that commercial flying would be awfully boring (worse than driving a bus!). The thought of leading a regimented life in the Air Force, however, did not appeal to me and so I decided to pursue a career in aeronautics research.

Nowadays, there are a lot of opportunities for early learning in this field. A great way to start is by browsing on the Internet --- just like you are right now! Another very effective way to collect knowledge is by visiting science and aeronautics museums. The Exploratorium in San Francisco has some excellent fluid flow exhibits, and there is an impressive aeronautics museum in Seattle, where Boeing resides. Building and flying model airplanes is also a great way to get an introduction to aerodynamics while having lots of fun at the same time. Concentrating on math and science while in school will help enormously in any engineering related career.

Personal Information
I have a wonderful wife, Beena, who is a laboratory technologist (yes, the medical person with a needle that kids are not too fond of) and she works at a lab in Mountain View. We have one son, Shalin, who graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in Management Information Systems now works for Intel Corporation as a Software Engineer. Shalin loves to play ice hockey and golf and he is s huge fan of cricket, a sport I played for most of my life. I don't play cricket any more, but I enjoy playing golf with my son. I just wish my game was more consistent, just like millions of other weekend golfers!

Archived QuestChats with Rabi Mehta


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