| New lab models fluid phenomena
Fluid mechanics figures in countless phenomena, from lung function to lake sedimentation. Terry Jo Leiterman (Mathematics) investigates both and brings fluid mechanics theory to life in a new lab on campus (above). The experiments she and her students perform there will contribute to scholarly understanding of the interplay between lake ecosystems and climate change.
This summer Jeff LaJeunesse ’13 will be working with Leiterman to study the settling and growth of microscopic plants like diatoms and phytoplankton through the tumult of seasonal changes. Equipment that Leiterman says “does its best to look like a lake” allows her, and her students, to approximate various sets of conditions and study their effects. We inject dyed chalk, which acts as these particles. We not only perform experiments to measure how the particles are settling, if we mix it up like the seasons would do, but also try to understand it from a mathematical point of view, from a theoretical point of view. What are the equations that would govern? What would mathematics predict?”
Their research could prove valuable to those exploring how changing carbon cycles influence climate. Says Leiterman: “These plants – they’re small but they’re numerous. Through photosynthesis and respiration, they have carbon as a byproduct.”
The work of David Poister (Chemistry and Environmental Science) piqued Leiterman’s interest in math ecology. Four years ago Stephanie Schauer ’10 and Corey Vorland ’10 worked with Leiterman to analyze sedimentation data Poister collected in Trout Lake, in Wisconsin’s Vilas County. Poister had analyzed colony-forming properties of the diatom Aulacoseira; Leiterman used the outcomes to study the effects of sedimentation rates on the diatom’s population growth.
Schauer and Vorland presented their evolving model at national math conferences in 2008 and 2009. The Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium – part of a NASA-led network of aerospace researchers and professionals – funded its further development, and a St. Norbert grant is supporting Leiterman’s efforts to publish the results.
Leiterman says that advances in computing have revolutionized the field of fluid mechanics. “There’s not a lot of exact solutions for fluid mechanics problems, but certainly we understand the equations that govern fluid situations,” she says. Those equations serve equally well whether Leiterman is considering a lake or a lung. Her work as a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill contributed to the Cystic Fibrosis Center’s Virtual Lung Project – research in which she remains deeply involved today. Her modeling of the movement of hair-like cilia in the fluid and mucus that fills the smallest chambers of the lung may have implications in treating the life-threatening disease.
July 8, 2012