Scientist, Who Studies ‘The Places In Between,’ Is Among Yale Researchers Exploring With ARRA Funding

There’s something about swirling vortices that’s mesmerizing — whether in churning ocean currents or curling threads of smoke from a fire. But when Nick Ouellette stares at such patterns, it isn’t the swirls that catch his attention. It’s the places in between, where nothing at all appears to be happening.

It is these singular points of inaction that may turn out to be one of the keys to understanding how turbulence works, Ouellette says. “These singularities are like little points of calm, where all these different forces come together and effectively cancel each other out. They’re located at the boundaries of different regions of flow.”

Now the assistant professor of mechanical engineering will be able to study the physics of turbulent flow with a three-year $320,000 grant funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

Ouellette, who joined Yale’s faculty in 2008, is interested in studying and defining the boundaries between different kinds of flow, which has applications for many natural systems, including climate. “We can extract tools from this for understanding chaotic systems, such as the atmosphere or ocean currents,” he says.

To do this, he sets up 2-D experiments using a 3-millimeter film of saltwater containing microscopic plastic beads atop a thin sheet of glass. When he passes a magnetic field and an electric current through the solution, he generates flow. He then tracks the tiny beads, which trace out the resulting turbulent patterns, using advanced videography. The 2-D experiment, he noted, is a good approximation of the Earth’s atmosphere, which is a thin layer covering the planet.

Ouellette is just one of dozens of Yale faculty who have received ARRA funding since the act was signed last February. Yale has launched a new ARRA website that includes the latest news on stimulus funding awarded to Yale researchers, as well as a summary of funded projects. To find out more, visit

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