Find Your Passion: From Fascination to Aspiration

Nikki WheelusWheelus stands inside an engineering lab where she researches how vehicles’ designs could be improved by mimicking aspects of animals’ physical features. (Samantha Hernandez)

By Amanda Coppock

When Nikki Wheelus was a child she would gaze at the stars and wonder what was up there. The beauty of space amazed her.

As an aerospace engineering graduate student at The University of Alabama, she has turned this early fascination into her life’s aspiration.

“If I had not been so fascinated by space, I would never have ended up in aerospace engineering,” says Wheelus, “which means that I would probably not have ended up as a researcher.”

Specializing in aerodynamics and propulsions with a focus in fluid dynamics, Wheelus says she’s pleased she was able to turn to research so early in her academic career.

“At a lot of schools they will put the undergrads in the corner and not let them touch anything,” she says. “Here they let you start research early. I was in the lab as a junior, learning to run all the equipment from top to bottom.”

Learning about projects from top to bottom, or, perhaps, from dorsal to ventral – are now all in a day’s lab work for Wheelus.

Since spotting a flier about shark skin research outside Dr. Amy Lang’s office four years ago, Wheelus has worked alongside the assistant professor of aerospace engineering and mechanics. Lang believes designers of aircraft and underwater vehicles could learn some things by imitating nature’s design of shark skins.

Nikki WheelusNamed an NSF Graduate Research Fellow in April, Wheelus won a fellowship that covers tuition and provides a $30,000-per-year living stipend for three years. (Samantha Hernandez)

With funding from the National Science Foundation, NASA and the Lindbergh Foundation, Lang researches how sharks’ flexible scales provide increased maneuverability and reduce drag for the animals and how such a design in manufactured materials could yield similar results. Lang says Wheelus’ inspiration for this research is visible.

“With respect to research, like me, she is inspired by what nature, and specifically sharks, can teach us about flow control,” says Lang.

Wheelus expresses appreciation for Lang’s accessibility and for the extent to which she allows the young researcher to become immersed in the details.

“I’m pretty much the one in the lab,” Wheelus says. “I run the experiments and bring the data back to her. She comes up with the game plan and lets me run it.”

The relationship Wheelus has forged with Lang as a research partner has impacted not only the student, but also the teacher.

“She has taught me that someone with a disability can accomplish anything they set their mind to,” says Lang.

Wheelus has a condition called Holt-Oram Syndrome. An inherited disorder, Holt-Oram Syndrome affects the formation of a person’s arms and hands. About 75 percent of those with the disorder, which is present at birth, also have heart abnormalities, as does Wheelus.

The graduate student says she works through her struggles, whether physical or those faced by all researchers, by thinking positively and reassuring herself that she can succeed.

In April 2009, Wheelus was named a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. The fellowship covers the cost of tuition and provides a $30,000-per-year living stipend for three years. This has allowed her, she says, to focus on her research without having to worry about working outside the lab.

“The NSF Fellowship was a huge turning point,” says Wheelus. “It opened a lot of doors that wouldn’t have been opened otherwise.”

“We were very proud when she was awarded the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship,” says Lang. “I have seen her grow in her understanding of the challenges and responsibilities associated with graduate school and performing research, especially as an experimentalist.

“She wants to rise above limitations, and with that achievement comes the satisfaction in knowing that the challenges that confront her can, in fact, be overcome,” says Lang.

Asked why she enjoys engineering, Wheelus responds, “I guess because it’s difficult—not everyone can do it, and not everyone can succeed at it.”

Wheelus certainly appears on the road to success – a road that began by looking up … and wondering.

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Amanda Coppock is a senior in The University of Alabama College of Communication and Information Sciences, majoring in public relations. She was a student writer in the College of Engineering.

This story is part of the Find Your Passion feature section of the UA home page. For more stories, please visit Find Your Passion or Crimson Spotlight. To learn more about how you can find your passion at The University of Alabama, please visit UA Undergraduate Admissions.