3° with Patrick Underhill

by Michael Mullaney on January 19, 2012

Patrick Underhill is a professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. We ask Patrick about his work:

Q:  You study complex fluids—everything from paint and ketchup to saliva, cell interiors, and DNA. More specifically, you investigate how tiny, microscopic features in these things can wield influence over the behavior of the entire fluid. How did you become interested in this topic?

A: As an undergrad, I majored in both chemical engineering and physics. Along with classes, I did research in a range of fields from catalysts to nuclear physics, including work on polymers. I was fascinated by how we could try to connect things at the atomistic scale to how the whole system or fluid behaves. The area of complex fluids lets me use all of this background in chemical engineering, physics, and math to work on some really cool problems. It is also fun to see the principles I study in many everyday materials. However, my friends and family often get tired of my pointing out all the complex fluids around us!

What’s your favorite thing about being a researcher?

I enjoy figuring out how things work or why they behave the way they do. I can’t think of a better job than being able to work on cool, important problems and try to figure out how they work. The “Eureka!” moment, where after working so hard on a problem you figure it out (and may be the first person to do so) is amazing. I also enjoy collaborating with researchers from many different backgrounds and disciplines, and the ability to help students as they build their career paths.

When did you know or decide that you wanted to be an engineer?

I have liked science and math since I was a kid. Ultimately when I needed to decide on a career, it helped that I have family members that are engineers. My Aunt Linda was one of the first female chemical engineering graduates from Northwestern. My older brother Greg also chose engineering as a career, and is now a professor at the University of Illinois.

For undergrad, you attended Washington University in St. Louis. Did you ever go up in the St. Louis Arch?

I’ve been up the Arch many times. I grew up 3.5 hours from St. Louis, so we would take family trips to see the Arch, the great museums, as well as other things the city has to offer including many Cubs versus Cardinals baseball games.

I also use the Arch as an example in one of the classes I teach. If you hold a string between your hands and let it hang down under gravity, the shape the string takes is called a catenary curve. The shape of the Arch is the same, except flipped upside down.

Outside of the lab and the classroom, what do you like to do for fun?

My wife and I like a lot of outdoor activities, especially hiking and nature photography. We also do quite a bit of cooking. My mother was a professional chef when I was growing up, so I was exposed to cooking at a very early age. I guess following a recipe and all the complex fluids used in cooking connect to my scientific sensibilities.

Finally, I am a passionate Atlanta Braves baseball fan. Even this year, when their epic collapse was second only to the Red Sox, I can still look forward to their certain World Series title next year!

To read more about Underhill and his research, check out the stories here and here.