Undergraduate coral research wins national recognition
A summer program in oceanography paved the way for Isaiah Cuadras to apply his interest in fluid dynamics to ocean ecosystems.
By Amy Sprague
UW Aero & Astro
January 29, 2021
UW aeronautics and astronautics (A&A) student Isaiah Cuadras won best undergraduate mechanical engineering presentation for his research at the 2020 SACNAS: The National Diversity in STEM Virtual Conference. Cuadras presented his fluids research in A&A’s Laboratory for Engineered Materials and Structures that is contributing to coral conservation work through a grant with the National Science Foundation. Specifically, he simulated ways to advance coral research in the laboratory by improving the water flow around them, which can create unintended negative impacts on the corals, interfering with accurate research findings.
The solution Cuadras is working on is to optimize a “coral-on-a-chip,” a millifluidic device which channels water past the corals and tempers the flow and reduces stress on the corals. Cuadras notes the technical term for this is “reduces dynamic shear stresses.” Cuadras performs simulations through computer programs which can then be translated into building a better millifluidic device in the future.
Isaiah Cuadras was long interested in aerospace when he participated in a study abroad program focusing on oceanography, led by Oceanography Research Scientist Rick Rupan and then-PhD student Isaiah Bolden and sponsored by LSAMP and the College of Engineering, which introduced him to ocean conservation strategies. The previous year, Professor Jinkyu Yang led the Australia summer program with an emphasis on aerospace structures inspired by origami, and through the program, Cuadras learned about Yang’s work in the Laboratory for Engineered Materials & Structures.
With this introduction, Cuadras contacted Professor Yang, who was leading the UW effort under a new grant by the National Science Foundation for coral research. Cuadras’ interests in both aerospace systems and ocean conservation came together with this interdisciplinary opportunity.
Says Cuadras, “This was the first time I saw research involving both fluid dynamics and biological systems.” The McNair Scholar, who thanks that program for helping him prepare to present his research at the SACNAS conference, plans to pursue a doctorate in oceanography, applying his fluid dynamics background to examine how ocean currents affect biological systems and the global climate.
Currently the corals under observation in the LEMS Lab are in a tank. Isaiah Cuadras’ research opens an avenue for observation of very small fragments of corals in the coral-on-a-chip millifluidic device. Water from this tank will filter into the device.
Associate Professor Jinkyu “JK'' Yang puts Cuadras’ research in context, "Marine biologists started using a coral-on-a-chip technology, which is useful in studying corals but still has substantial challenges, particularly in its optimal design. Isaiah’s computational fluid dynamics simulations on a new coral-on-a-chip device we are developing in collaboration with Professor Natassja Lewinski’s group at Virginia Commonwealth University saved us a tremendous amount of time and effort in the design stage.”
A&A graduate student Shuaifeng (Scott) Li mentored Cuadras through this research and said, “I am very impressed by his effort and work. Especially given that Isaiah is only an undergraduate student, he learned finite element analysis and fluid mechanics in a very short time. His research makes it possible for us to directly observe the microscopic live coral polyps, and his adaptations will benefit labs working on coral around the world.”