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UW Grad Student Wins Fellowship for Wind Research

May 6, 2015
man using scientific equipment
UW graduate student Marlin Holmes works in the university’s wind tunnel on his research concerning air flow “wakes” caused by wind turbines and other rotating devices. (UW Photo)

As a child growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., and Charlotte, N.C., Marlin Holmes asked a lot of questions. When his parents and grandparents didn’t have the answers, they encouraged him to find out for himself, often taking him to the local library to do research -- and enrolling him in summer science camps to further stimulate his interests.

That inquisitive mind, combined with family support, led Holmes to earn a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in 2013. And it has brought him to the University of Wyoming, where he is in the second year of graduate studies in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, working under Professor Jonathan Naughton in UW’s Wind Energy Research Center.

Holmes recently was notified that he’s a recipient of the prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship, one of 2,000 individuals -- three at UW -- selected from among 16,500 applicants in 2015. The fellowships support graduate studies for students “based on their demonstrated potential for significant achievements in science and engineering,” according to an NSF media release.

Holmes credits his faculty mentors and family for his success.

“I’ve never been one who believes a person achieves something on his own,” he says. “It really does take a community to produce an individual’s success, and I’m fortunate to have had a lot of people in my camp.”

While he’s immersed in his intensive graduate studies -- which have the potential to significantly benefit both the wind energy and airline industries -- Holmes has made it a priority to help others. Through a separate NSF fellowship, he regularly works with young people around the state to encourage their interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics through activities including building model wind turbines. He teaches mathematics during the summer in UW’s TRIO Program for students who are economically disadvantaged, from ethnic minorities, have disabilities or are first-generation college students.

He’s also a member of UW’s Black Student Alliance, UW’s Martin Luther King Jr./Days of Dialogue Committee and Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established for African-Americans.

Going “Where the Wind Is”

Holmes’ decision to come to UW was spurred by his adviser at Georgia Tech, Associate Professor Marilyn Smith, who delivered a simple message when told of his desire to study wind energy.

“She said that, if I wanted to learn about wind energy, I needed to go where the wind is,” Holmes says with a laugh. “And if I would first go to Wyoming and learn the science, I’d then be able to go on and do anything I want.”

Naughton, an associate of Smith with an international reputation in wind energy studies, “was the most responsive and most helpful” of any faculty member at the institutions to which Holmes applied for graduate school, he standing in front of wind tunnel

“He flew me out here and showed me that I was really wanted,” Holmes says. “No one else did that -- not Stanford, not Penn, not others.”

Naughton says the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship is a feather in the cap for both Holmes and UW.

“I think Marlin’s decision to enroll at UW, and his reception of this award, reflect favorably on the ability of the research and graduate programs developed by the faculty in Mechanical Engineering to attract the best and brightest students,” Naughton says.

After a year and a half at UW, Holmes says he’s happy with his decision.

“It’s been good so far,” he says. “My project is really interesting, and I’m gaining high-level problem-solving skills from Dr. Naughton and other faculty members.”

Holmes acknowledges it was an adjustment to come from Atlanta, population 4 million, to Laramie, population 30,000. But he has embraced Wyoming -- which he describes as “a really beautiful state” -- and enjoys the outdoors as a snowboarder, skier and hiker.

Learning About “Wakes”

The pioneering research in which Holmes is engaged focuses on air flow “wakes” caused by wind turbines and other rotating devices. Specifically, he is experimenting to learn how the velocity of rotations affects the behavior of wakes, working in UW’s wind tunnel with a device called a “wake generator” he helped develop.

While there’s much more to do to produce data that can be applied to all situations, Holmes says it’s clear that the wind energy industry could benefit from such research. As it stands now, companies design wind farms without complete information regarding the wakes caused by turbines, resulting in energy losses in excess of 15 percent. A better understanding of wake behavior could allow more efficient wind farm designs, he says.

In addition, there could be implications for the airline industry. Airplane wing tips produce their own wakes, or vortices, and concerns about their effects on other aircraft are one of the reasons for gaps between takeoffs and landings at airports. A better understanding of the behavior of vortices potentially could allow more precise and efficient air traffic control at airports, he says.

Holmes plans to complete his master’s degree within the next year and his Ph.D. about two years after that. He expects to have a variety of career options, including work in academia, industry and national laboratories. He also has an entrepreneurial bent, as evidenced by his regular participation in business plan competitions, and would love to establish his own company if the opportunity arises.

Regardless of which path he chooses, his status as an NSF Graduate Research Fellow will be beneficial.

“It opens a lot of doors,” Holmes says. “It will be a really big boon for me.”

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