As a little girl spending summers in her mother's farmhouse in the Loire Valley, Dr. Nadine Aubry was fascinated by water and the patterns in it as she fished in a local stream. Her father, a native of Brittany and an engineer with France's nuclear energy agency, instilled a love of the ocean he knew so well. So it came as no surprise to the curious student and nature lover that she wound up tackling some of the most baffling questions in the area of fluid dynamics.
"I've always been fascinated by water and came to know how important a problem turbulence is," says Aubry, the head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering
at Carnegie Mellon University. "The complex state of fluid dynamics has many degrees of freedom.
The challenge is to desribe it in fewer dimensions."
Working with micro-fluidic flows, it is Aubry's goal to see practical applications such as the ability to analyze one's blood and urine in a fast and inexpensive way using a disposable, pocket-sized device. This ability to dial into one's physical state could lead to earlier diagnoses of serious diseases. Similarly, the promise of soldiers on the battlefield checking their blood after entering a contaminated zone could save lives.
"These are challenging problems and many people are still working on them," continues Aubry. "As head of a department, I still research but I work with students and collaborators."
Aubry was appointed to her role at the university in 2006 and the school's approach to education and research fits her to a T.
"CMU is without question the best university for interdisciplinary research and we're also interested in an interdisciplinary education for our students. My research may be technical but we allow students to pursue their own interests and a flexible curriculum makes that possible. This fits the profile of a student that's well-rounded, adapted to globalization and other types of people and who can use problem-solving as the foundation for tackling global challenges."
A native of Paris, France, Aubry is as chic as one would expect and imbued with a grace not often associated with scientists and lab rats. A graduate of the premier scientific universities of Grenoble, France, Aubry received her doctorate at Cornell in 1987 and spent a number of years at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, where she is believed to have been the first female head of a department of Mechanical Engineering in the U.S. The opportunity to join the faculty at CMU proved irresistible.
"We're doing a good job of recruiting women into mechanical engineering at the university," notes Aubry. "The national average for women in this area of study is 11.5%. It was 20% at CMU last year and we expect it to be 26% this year."
A greater challenge was convincing her three teenage children to leave the familiarity of a childhood spent in New Jersey and reestablish themselves in Pittsburgh. Aubry and her husband, a consulting engineer, settled on Wexford in order to place the kids in the North Allegheny school district. Driving a hard bargain, the teens insisted on a pool and hot tub to ease their transition. Everyone got their wish and the family is happily settled in an expansive property with acreage and a country feel.
"The kids grew up in a more urban setting as we were in a community not far from New York City. Luckily, my oldest was already driving when we moved here and she was able to get her siblings around and help them feel more connected." The girls played field hockey in high school while their brother played hoops. Mom and dad, on the other hand, have long enjoyed weekend walks in North Park and the family skies at Seven Springs.
"Pittsburgh is a very nice city, very pleasant to live in," says Aubry. "It's a very pretty setting. We like the hills and the lush feel and yet everything is available, from sports to culture to music to ethnic restaurants. We're blessed to be here." The kids are sticking close to mom in more ways than one, seeing as how they're all engineering students at CMU (the oldest is about to graduate and may move on to a master's program at the school while the youngest will enroll in the fall).
As Aubry sees it, CMU is well positioned as an institution. "A lot of problems in the traditional disciplines, be they mechanical, civil or chemical engineering, have already been solved so the challenge going forward is to blur the boundaries between disciplines. CMU is extremely interdisciplinary and we started doing this early on."
Fluid mechanics and the challenges posed by hydrofracking and the attendant filtration of water containing toxic liquids are being looked at by folks in both civil and environmental engineering while interdisciplinary teams are undertaking atmospheric and particulate research as it pertains to the region's air quality.
And then there are the simple pleasures of living in Pittsburgh. "We love the restaurants on East Carson Street, especially Le Pommier," says the Frenchwoman of the South Side's signature bistro. "I also love sitting in the Grand Concourse – it's a magnificent building! There are so many great older buildings in Pittsburgh, and then there's the fish market in the Strip District. If I had known about Pittsburgh earlier, we would have loved to raise our family here."New Girl In Town Elaine Labalme says "Grand Concourse or Smithfield Street Bridge? I'll take both."
Photographs of Dr. Aubrey and CMU campus copyright Brian Cohen