NASA image

Nicole Sharp wrote about this satellite image of a phytoplankton bloom on her popular fluid dynamics blog.

Credit: N.Kuring/NASA

Going with the flow

What do champagne bubbles, speed skating, billowing shower curtains, and the “Jesus Christ” lizard have in common? Not to mention Frisbee discs, the surface of Pluto, and those beautifully colored patterns on soap film?

Each presents an intriguing problem involving fluid dynamics, as aerospace engineer Nicole Sharp illustrates on her blog F*#$ Yeah Fluid Dynamics, or FYFD. (She chose the name as “a joke,” to be part of the viral “phenomenon” of blogs using “F*#$ Yeah” in their titles to express excitement about a topic.) Five days a week, FYFD offers its 228,500 followers on six continents an explanation of an interesting phenomenon related to the movement of fluids. Since Sharp created it in 2010 while working toward her Ph.D., she has posted more than 1440 entries and also made videos for an FYFD YouTube channel. After finishing her doctorate and working in industry, Sharp focused her attention on the blog, which she now works on full time and is endeavoring to make financially feasible.

I met Sharp at the AAAS annual meeting in Washington, D.C., earlier this year where, billed as the creator of “the world’s most popular web site for fluid dynamics,” she participated in the annual Improbable Research show highlighting the Ig Nobel Prizes, which are awarded to research that “make[s] people LAUGH, and then THINK.” There’s nothing laughable about Sharp’s work, but she is doing some improbable, informal research of her own: namely, exploring the possibilities of new forms of science communication and science careers. Questions she may eventually answer include: Can a highly focused online publication unaffiliated with an academic institution or scientific society serve as a means of communication within a field of science traditionally reliant upon scholarly journals and conferences? Can such a medium help early-career researchers gain attention for their work and advance their careers? Can such a site also serve nonspecialists interested in the subject? And can running the site provide its creator a self-sustaining career? 

Surprises

The project was “born out of frustration,” Sharp says, that fluid dynamics—which enthralled her—seemed to get very little attention, respect, or understanding outside the circle of students, scientists, and engineers working on it. The study of fluids in motion, she says, enables understanding of a huge number of phenomena in a vast range of fields, including biology, meteorology, medicine, astronomy, geology, oceanography, sports, animal behavior, and even highway traffic. Reading widely to keep up with the literature in the field while working on her Ph.D., in her spare time she began to post short pieces about interesting new research or phenomena that caught her eye. (She had blogged informally about her life and interests for some years.) She wanted, as her site states, to “[celebrate] the physics of all that flows” and “shar[e] the awesomeness that is fluid dynamics with the world—whether or not you care for calculus.”

Nicole Sharp

Nicole Sharp

Credit: Nicole Sharp

At the beginning, she spread the word just by telling friends what she was doing, but then she watched in amazement as her following grew and grew, reaching 20,000 after 2 years, topping 40,000 just 6 months after that, and hitting almost 180,000 less than a year later. She started hearing from teachers using her items in their classes, high school and college students referencing them in term papers, people writing her with questions, and researchers telling her about their papers and findings.

“I just started doing this,” Sharp recalls. “I very honestly did not think that the website was ever going to get more than a few hundred viewers [or] that it was going to turn into something [that would be] a defining feature of my contribution to fluid dynamics. I didn’t expect it to be something that I would be doing as a career.” But now her readers are “almost anyone”: from Ph.D. researchers to high schoolers, retirees to 15 year olds, and active researchers to people who have no background in physics.

FYFD has proven “surprisingly popular,” writes mechanical engineering professor Jean Hertzberg of the University of Colorado, Boulder, in a poster presented at the 2013 Physics Education Research Conference. That popularity appears to rest not only on the intriguing quandaries that Sharp highlights and the elegant science that explains them, but also on the often strikingly beautiful images that are integral to her approach. Hertzberg, who teaches a course on creating images of flow that is open to both engineering and fine arts students, notes the power of beauty to serve as “a useful bridge” to science. “[O]utside [the research] community it is the aesthetics of fluid flows that carries the greatest weight,” she writes on her poster.

Lots of scientists, from graduate students to university department chairs, write blogs. But Sharp’s creation differs from the usual idiosyncratic collections of short essays, photos, and Internet links in a number of ways: the size and diversity of her following, the complexity of the material she offers and plans to offer in the future, and how this work has affected her own career path. Generally bloggers write in a style that is “conversational, with a focus on the author's unique voice, and often emphasizes, rather than minimizes, personal biases,” writes Andrew David Thaler of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester Point and author of the blog Southern Fried Science, in a book review in Science of Science Blogging: The Essential Guide. FYFD, however, eschews chat, personality, and attitude in favor of straightforward presentations of science, with an emphasis on the research that explains fluid dynamics.

And for most bloggers, writing is a sideline to the work that pays the bills, but it can on occasion lead especially able practitioners into paying work as writers. Sharp’s career trajectory appears to be pointing in its own unusual direction—toward her heading her own, highly specialized publication.

Diving in

After finishing her Ph.D. in 2013, Sharp had to deal with a phenomenon well known in science: the “two-body problem” of romantic partners both seeking to pursue professional careers. After 5 years apart pursuing doctorates at different universities, she and her fiancé (now her husband) were determined to take jobs in the same city. This led them to Boston, where Sharp went to work for a defense company while continuing to run FYFD.

After 2 years, however, circumstances forced a choice between her careers as an engineering employee and an independent creator. She hoped to enrich FYFD with more videos and other features—including work by other contributors, whom she wanted to pay. This would require money to cover production costs, travel to labs to film interesting research, and those other contributors’ work, not to mention the increasing amount of time she was spending on FYFD. Her employer, however, forbade employees monetizing outside activities.

To decide between FYFD and her reliable job, she and her husband evaluated “finances, future opportunities, and personal happiness,” she says, and chose FYFD, “at least for a trial period.” The decision wasn’t easy because it involved risk and some upfront investment, but “in the end, I didn't want to look back and regret not even trying to make FYFD into something more,” she recalls.

Now committed to the blog as her full-time work, she has undertaken a fundraising campaign on the crowdfunding site Patreon, where supporters of creative projects can sign up to make monthly online donations. “It’s kind of the [National Public Radio] or [Public Broadcasting Service] model, minus the tote bags,” she says. She does, however, offer various rewards “that [she] doesn’t have to mail” to donors at particular levels. For $100 a month, for example, a top-level “Wave” donor can appear in periodic webcasts in which Sharp interviews scientists about their work. (Other donor levels include “Vortex,” “Splash,” and “Bubble.”) She is also exploring possibilities of applying for grants but does not want to accept advertising.

The academic fluid dynamics community’s “surprisingly strong” response has been especially gratifying, Sharp says. In fact, she adds, “I’ve had a number of fluid dynamicists … express an interest in contributing to the website.” Early-career scientists in particular are eager for Sharp to write about their work on FYFD—which Sharp is generally happy to do because it provides a “nice situation” for her to “point people to that research. …  I’m helping those researchers.” Established scientists have established means of sharing their work and advancing their careers, but for unknowns trying to get noticed and make their names, being featured on a widely read site could make a difference.

As yet, Sharp has no answers to the questions about communication and career that her improbable creation inherently poses, but she is “cautiously optimistic,” “very excited about the possibilities,” and grateful for the opportunity “to pursue [her] passion,” she says. Can that passion result in a new-style medium of research communication, both among scientists and with the lay public? Can it provide Sharp a sustainable career? For now, FYFD’s future—and Sharp’s own—remains, well, fluid.

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