Stephanie TerMaath, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomedical Engineering (MABE), may be a relatively new faculty member, but she has already made a remarkable impact during her years at the UT Tickle College of Engineering.
TerMaath recently received a $510,000 research grant from the Office of Naval Research (ONR) Young Investigator Program (YIP) for her work in repairing ship hulls. The ONR YIP is one of the oldest and most selective scientific research advancement programs in the country. The purpose of the awards are to fund early-career academic researchers—called investigators—whose scientific pursuits show exceptional promise for supporting the Department of Defense, while also promoting the selected awardees’ professional development. A total of twenty-four YIP winners were selected in 2014 from a competitive, diverse pool of nearly two hundred and eighty candidates. Each selectee receives annual monetary awards over a three year period for their research work.
TerMaath was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, on Shepard Air Force Base, where both of her parents served as Air Force Officers. Although the family moved quite a bit during her childhood, TerMaath considers herself a native Texan. The time she spent during her early years around aircraft and aeronautic equipment sparked her interest in engineering.
“Growing up in an Air Force family, I was surrounded by aircraft,” TerMaath said. “I was always fascinated by the aircraft flying overhead, and airshows were my favorite time of the year. My childhood dream was to design fighter aircraft. This dream was later fulfilled while I worked at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics as part of the Airframe Certification Team for the Joint Strike Fighter (F-35).”
TerMaath received her bachelor of science degree in civil engineering with honors from Penn State University, her master of science degree in civil engineering from Purdue University, and her PhD degree in civil engineering at Cornell University. It was during her time at prestigious Cornell that TerMaath’s research interests became more focused.
“Cornell was founded on the principle that each student could build a unique and individualized field of study. Taking full advantage of this philosophy, I built a multi-disciplinary PhD program that included civil and mechanical engineering and theoretical and applied mechanics,” TerMaath said. “This educational approach allowed me to study from top structural mechanics and dynamics experts performing research in diverse applications. At this point in my education, I truly grasped the concept that a fundamental knowledge base can be applied to solve many disparate problems. I believe that this approach to research enables us to explore problems from diverse perspectives, and to develop innovative solutions that may not have been formulated through one individual viewpoint alone. I follow this multi-disciplinary approach with my current research program at UT.”
During her time at Cornell, TerMaath also had an opportunity to work with Boeing engineers and formed a connection that led to a job at Boeing Phantom Works when she graduated. The position began her journey in aerospace engineering and aircraft design.
Once TerMaath decided to embark upon a career in academia, she had multiple criteria in mind when she began choosing a university, and the University of Tennessee fit them all. In particular, it was important for her to work at a university that supports and encourages multi-disciplinary research, and she was extremely impressed by the faculty at UT. In addition to the broad resources at the university, the proximity of Oak Ridge National Lab (ORNL) offered many opportunities for collaborative efforts of national importance. TerMaath was also excited to have the opportunity to work with structural mechanics in the MABE department.
At UT, TerMaath’s research group in computational structural mechanics develops numerical methods and algorithms to solve complex, multi-physics problems and implements these new techniques into simulation codes. The team’s two main research projects are composite patch analysis and optimization of ventricular catheter design. Both projects are multi-disciplinary, and her research team encompasses students and researchers from many departments.
“As a participant in The Science Alliance-Liane B. Russell Fellowship Collaborative Cohort Program, my biomedical team of all women students (including a high school student, a freshman honors student, and a graduate student) and two women scientists at ORNL are performing research titled ‘Supercomputing for Multi-Disciplinary Optimization of Obstructed Ventricular Catheters,’” TerMaath said. “The objective of this research is to improve the quality of life for patients suffering from brain disorders treated by shunting. Brain shunts are used to treat patients suffering and disabled from a range of life-threatening disorders, including congenital pediatric hydrocephalus that is present in 1/500 live births. While there is typically no cure for these patients, placement of a brain shunt often leads to symptom relief and prevents brain damage and death. Despite the consequences for patients, brain shunt failure rate is over fifty percent, resulting in multiple brain surgeries in a patient’s lifetime. One of the primary causes of failure and reoperation is obstruction of the ventricular catheter, the tube that diverts cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) from the ventricles to the shunt valve. Improved design and optimization of the ventricular catheter requires the integration of science from the multi-disciplinary fields of high performance computing, fluid dynamics, structural mechanics, materials science, nuclear imaging, mathematics, and probabilistic analysis. Solution of this problem will only be achieved through the convergence of these multi-disciplinary fields. This project will develop the basic science, models, and methodology to investigate CSF flow through an obstructed catheter. Sensitivity analysis and probabilistic evaluation of hundreds of random parameters on catheter performance will be performed to optimize design.”
As part of her ongoing ONR YIP award research, TerMaath and several of her students will continue looking at ways to optimize the reliability of composite patches for aluminum ship hulls in collaboration with engineers at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock Division in Potomic, Maryland.
“The title of this research program is Probabilistic Multi-Scale Damage Tolerance Modeling of Composite Patches for Naval Aluminum Alloys. Composite patches are applied to undamaged or damaged metal structure as a means to improve or restore the damage tolerance and load-carrying capacity of the component,” TerMaath said. “The Navy is successfully implementing composite patches on ships for the repair and reinforcement of hulls; however, a thorough understanding of patch structural behavior is lagging. Computational simulation is an effective method to analyze patch performance, but we need enhanced tools and methodology to capture the complex behavior of repaired structure. To develop the probabilistic, multi-scale models and methodology to predict the damage tolerance and performance of a patched system requires the coalescence of fracture mechanics, experimental testing, probabilistic analysis, advanced modeling, and high performance computing. This Navy research integrates all of these disciplines to address several challenging problems of interacting damage mechanisms, thus exemplifying the integration of multiple disciplines to advance reliability-based ship design.”
In addition to her busy research and teaching schedule, TerMaath also serves as a faculty advisor for the student chapter of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) at UT.
“I think the biggest progress is the current focus on encouraging girls to participate in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields starting in elementary school. The earlier that girls learn that engineering is fun and a very creative profession, the more likely that they won’t be distracted by stigmas later in life,” TerMaath said. “While we still have a long way to go to increase the number of women in engineering fields, there are high-achieving women in engineering leadership positions to mentor our next generations of women engineers. Supportive organizations, such as SWE, are much more active than when I was in school. SWE now works with elementary, middle, and high school girls through all day events filled with hands-on design projects. The SWE organizers plan extremely fun activities, and I have to admit that I have as much fun as the girls attending these events! SWE also hosts regional and national conferences packed with career development and networking opportunities, as well as poster exhibitions for the students’ research. All of these special events are in addition to the on-campus, day-to- day interactions of the students through social activities, study groups, and friendships.”
During her free time, TerMaath participates in a competitive clogging team and plays ice hockey. She also is an advocate for the USO and volunteers for the organization.
TerMaath has ambitious plans for the future.
“I want to achieve tenure and establish a thriving, multi- disciplinary research team in the field of computational structural mechanics. Consistent to my belief that many of today’s daunting scientific challenges will only be overcome through the integration of knowledge from diverse fields, my overall career goal is to integrate my expertise and background in structural mechanics with knowledge from other fields to unravel complex, multi-physics problems whose solutions substantially impact our quality of life,” TerMaath commented. “I had the exceptional opportunity to attend the HERS Wellesley Institute this past academic year. This program prepares women for leadership positions in higher education. Women are severely under- represented in this career path, and it is essential to diversify this workforce and provide competent researchers with the skill set to meet future demands. Finally, my first and foremost reason for pursuing a faculty career to is to educate our next generation of engineers and to serve as a mentor for their professional development. I want to dedicate my career to preparing students with the skills they need to pursue their dreams.”
TerMaath paused for a moment. “Wow,” she said. “I am going to be busy!”