Jami Tullius ‘13 knows how to turn up the heat but more importantly, she knows how to dial it down. With a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Rice University, Tullius has worked on thermal management systems for the last decade.
“To ensure the integrity of electrical components – which generate heat as they perform their tasks – we utilize thermal management systems which move large amounts of heat from small surfaces very quickly. These systems can be found in everything from homes and phones to computers and missiles. I’m currently focused on thermal management in Earth’s stratosphere,” said Tullius.
As the principal thermal engineer for space tourism company World View, Tullius explores ways to improve thermal management systems for common commercial products in order to be used at attitudes of 70,000-100,000 feet.
“When you take a commercial system designed to work on Earth’s surface and move it into the stratosphere, its new environment runs to extremes. The ambient temperature is very cold when the device is not exposed to the sun, then potentially can be very hot when the sun’s radiation directly impacts the system. Commercially available components can be utilized by World View as long as the devices can survive these extreme temperature limits with the designed thermal management system and still perform the job we’re sending them up there to do,” she said.
“From launch to landing, World View utilizes thermal managements systems throughout the vehicle for navigation, operations, and landing hardware.”
Tullius’ enthusiasm for her work usually lands her in the office in the early mornings, coffee in hand, she dives into the latest iteration of her team’s designs and enhancements and begins her workday with documenting everything she does.
“Technical documentation was not a part of my career I thought much about when I began grad school,” said Tullius. “When I first got to Rice University, I loved engineering and I hated reading and writing. Engineers like me get into the field because we’re passionate about physics and math; the other assignments – like reading and writing – just get in the way. But in my first six months of grad school, my advisor, Dr. Yildiz Bayazitoglu, told me I had to read as much as I could about a particular topic and then write a paper about it.”
“The papers I was reading were dense, and I had other graduate work, and courses to pass. But this task was the beginning of my communication training. After much guidance and feedback from my advisor, it became my first technical paper in which I was second author. Throughout my degree at Rice, I had opportunities like these to develop my skills –like the technical writing class for my thesis.”
Participants in the graduate thesis writing class were researchers in a wide range of departments across the university. Each student’s homework focused on developing their own thesis and the instructor critiqued that week’s work. Class examples and discussions involved more general topics like making a bold statement to open a section, how the section would end and how to structure in the middle. Although Tullius did not enjoy reading and writing as she entered her Ph.D. work, she rose to the challenge, even working as peer coach for graduate students working on presentations.
“I became a PowerPoint Presentation coach, which was helpful for understanding how to improve my own presentations. It is a world of presentations; these days, everyone is preparing and giving them. The idea is to get the point across and not be too wordy but still be able to dive into the details as you present the slide,” she said.
“I look back at my graduate career which ended almost 10 years ago and I realize that what I obtained from grad school was not the drive to learn; I would not have pursued my Ph.D otherwise. It was not my ability to learn; I would not have been successful in my undergrad. But it was developing my research skills, developing my presentation skills, developing my writings and ultimately becoming a better communicator.”
She does value her Ph.D. training and its impact on her career, but she cautions other engineering graduate students to keep their ears and minds open when they begin working in industry.
“Remain humble,” said Tullius. “Those three letters after your name don’t mean you know everything, and your peers don’t expect you to know everything.
“Depending on the job you accept, you may run into the perception that Ph.D.s are not receptive to feedback and they always have to be right. Rice taught me to learn and learn quickly, and you have the chance to learn valuable information from the people around you in your new role in order to be successful as long as you are willing.”
In her first job after graduating from Rice, Tullius did not find it necessary to reveal her level of education to all her colleagues. She already recognized that in some environments, Ph.D.s had earned a reputation for not being receptive to feedback and for always being right. Rather than begin introductions with her Rice credentials, she just got to work, listened to her peers, and incorporated their input into solving problems.
Tullius said, “I learned so much from the technicians that had been working there for 30 years. If I’d approached those same technicians waving my Ph.D., they would have laughed in my face. But approach them with questions like, ‘What can I do to improve this? Who can teach me more?’ and they would be more receptive to teaching me what they knew. Being open to their feedback has allowed me to understand the needs or desires to ease production with input directly from those putting the equipment together.”
“With so much remote work today, many engineers don’t get to see what they have designed being built and implemented. If you are working as a technician and have to do a somersault just to reach a bolt with a wrench, all you can do is complain about it. But as an engineer, you can change that. We’re all working toward a common goal.”
That common goal is foremost in Tullius’ mind as she considers how to best support the World Views Enterprises Space Tourism and Remote Sensing Products.
This story is part of a series of profiles for the ACTIVATE Engineering Communication program.