Faculty spotlight: Associate Professor Randall Mathison

Posted: May 16, 2023
Randall Mathison

Associate Professor Randall Mathison, from the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, is featured in this installment of our series highlighting Aerospace Research Center core and associated faculty. Explore his team’s projects by visiting the Gas Turbine Lab webpage.

Question: Why did you choose your field of research?

Answer: I have always loved airplanes and wanted to work in the aerospace industry. What drew me to propulsion research and turbomachinery in particular is the challenging and interdisciplinary nature of the research. For example, my research focused on improving the performance and extending the life of high-pressure turbine components requires innovation in understanding the aerodynamics and heat transfer of the flowpath geometry (flow is three-dimensional, unsteady, transonic, turbulent and multi-scale), new materials to survive extreme conditions, advanced manufacturing to accurately produce these geometries from difficult materials, improved understanding of the structural dynamics of these components and novel instrumentation to investigate the performance of these parts. I enjoy getting to learn about so many different fields.

Q: Describe one of your current projects. 

A: We are currently developing a facility that will allow us to investigate what happens when a spinning turbine blade contacts the stationary outer casing of the engine at true engine speeds and temperatures. As we strive to improve the efficiency of future engines, we have to shrink the gap between the rotating and stationary components to minimize leakage flows. However, this increases the likelihood that the moving blades will come into contact with the stationary parts, which we call a blade tip rub. Our facility will make it possible to investigate tip rubs in realistic conditions but with better control than would be possible in an operating engine. It is an interesting project because beyond the physics of the rub interaction, there are significant technological requirements to be able to safely operate a rotor at these extreme speeds and temperatures, obtain measurements in this harsh environment, and be able to control the driving variables of the blade-casing interaction. A lot of research goes into developing the technology to make the experiment possible and then you also get to learn about the problem at the core of the research. [Click to read more about the Pratt & Whitney Center of Excellence.]

Q: What is the most rewarding part of your job? 

A: I really enjoy seeing the unique capabilities of each member of our team come together to produce impressive results. I am continually amazed by the skills of our students and staff and what they are able to accomplish working together. We have built some really cool things that seemed impossible at the beginning but came to life through the hard work and creativity of our team.

Q: What advice would you give to incoming graduate students?

A: One of the physicists on the Manhattan Project said “99% of experimental physics is plumbing.” There are definitely days where I feel that way about our research as we focus on small things like oil leaks or faulty electrical connections instead of the bigger research questions. But I feel the point stands for all areas of research: you have to get the details right in order to have a hope of answering the bigger questions. It can get discouraging to spend so much time solving little problems that will never be in a paper, but you have to remember that these are important steps to producing your end result and that there is value and learning in this painful process. Also, it is important to remember to make time for fun!

Q: What is special about the Aerospace Research Center?

A: The ARC has a focused community of researchers with similar interests. It is always fun to hear what others in the building are up to and how their work connects to developments across the aerospace field.

Q: What keeps you inspired? 

A: I am inspired by the growth of our students and staff. It motivates me to see other people mastering new skills and heading out to take on new challenges and opportunities. I am glad to get to be a part of that learning process.

Research at the center spans a range of air transportation challenges. Read more about current initiatives on the research overview webpage.