Reflection on my research at Michigan

In May of 2011, I was starting to realize that the end of my Ph.D. was in sight. It was around this time that my advisor, Panos Papalambros, was hosting the Design Frontiers Symposium, where design researchers from across the country (and a few from abroad) came to Ann Arbor to discuss and take collaborative action on the challenges facing design research. The two-day symposium had a poster session on the first evening, and Panos told me a few weeks before the conference that he wanted me to present a poster of my research. I asked him: "Which project would you like me to present?", to which he replied: "Just present your research."

Now, I should explain how my Ph.D. research evolved during my time at Michigan. I began on a project sponsored by one of the Detroit automakers, looking at how crash safety and fuel economy are related in the vehicle design process. The true objective was to see how vehicles could be made more fuel-efficient without compromising safety, but to start out we needed to understand the relationships between the objectives, mainly with regard to vehicle weight (heavier vehicles are typically safer and less fuel-efficient). In this work, I spent a lot of time learning simulation tools, mostly for simulating vehicle crashes and occupant-restraint interactions, and a small part for powertrain and fuel economy modeling. After a while, we started to get some interesting results and new ideas for research directions on optimization of occupant protection in frontal crashes, and I published my first international conference paper. This was right around the time we had to re-apply for funding, but unfortunately the money from Detroit automakers was disappearing fast (remember the 2008 auto company bailout?).

Fortunately, we were able to get funded on a new project sponsored by the Army, looking at blast protection in military ground vehicles. The simulation tools were similar and the safety theme was there, but other than that it seemed an entirely different application since we were looking at blast protection from explosives rather than crash protection. I spent some time during the summer of 2009 at the Detroit Arsenal (a U.S. Army tank research center) learning about the threats, the models, and what would be useful to the Army, and my research on blast protection picked up. I was continuing the research on crash protection, since we were getting interesting results and finding new areas to explore, but I had to carefully balance the two projects to make sure I could continue making progress in both directions.

By May of 2011 I had written two conference papers on the civilian crash study and two conference papers and a journal paper on the military blast study, but there was zero cross-over between the two studies. This was why I asked my advisor about which project to present, and this is why I was initially uncertain when he seemed to suggest I present both simultaneously.

Realizing that I had a cohesive dissertation to write about these two studies within the next six months, the Design Frontiers Symposium was a perfect excuse to start drawing the parallels, and so I made a poster that discussed both research areas. Once I sat down to form the poster, I found that it was surprisingly easy to draw parallels between the two studies, and I really started to understand how my thesis would eventually work out. The title of that poster would later become the first-draft title of my dissertation, which I completed five months later.