University of Calgary

Taylor Oetelaar, Engineering PhD: Student of Rome. Seeker of challenges

UToday HomeJune 7, 2013

By Jane Chamberlin

Taylor Oetelaar says a well-crafted design is like a work of art: “There is something amazing about seeing a device and knowing you had a part in its creation.” <em>Photo by Riley Brandt</em>Taylor Oetelaar says a well-crafted design is like a work of art: “There is something amazing about seeing a device and knowing you had a part in its creation.” Photo by Riley BrandtFor Taylor Oetelaar, the study of engineering has thrown open a series of doors – doors leading to long-standing passions and unexpected opportunities.

When he first entered the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering as an undergraduate, Oetelaar couldn’t have foreseen studying the thermodynamics of Roman baths, or revisiting lifelong interests in automobile design and art.

Oetelaar completed his PhD in mechanical engineering this spring, and his research centered on using computational fluid dynamics to analyze ancient Roman baths. But his original attraction to engineering can be traced to an enduring passion for cars. “In high school I was fascinated with car design, but also had an aptitude for math and the sciences,” says Oetelaar. “I wanted to combine creativity and analytical skills, and engineering was the direction I chose.”

So being part of the University of Calgary’s solar car project was a natural fit for Oetelaar. As an undergraduate, he helped design the car’s shell, and later was co-mechanical manager. “There is something amazing about seeing a device and knowing you had a part in its creation,” he says.

As for his interest in art, that too became part of undergraduate life. In Oetelaar’s fourth year, two courses in classical art and architecture caught his eye. They launched a full-fledged passion for classical archaeology, leading to the synthesis of archaeology, art and engineering that became his PhD project. His research culminated in the creation of intricate 2- and 3-D simulations of Roman baths – a demanding process for both sides of the brain.

One of the opportunities Oetelaar embraced as a graduate student had no apparent root in existing interests. Teaching was a daunting prospect for Oetelaar, who has cerebral palsy and who always found the task of presentation challenging. But if you ask Oetelaar what stands out most in his academic experience, he’ll say, teaching.

The first day of his teaching assistantship was fraught with nerves. “I could just imagine the first-year students — new to university, new to engineering — finding out that the TA they would see for 4.5 hours a week for the next four months was disabled,” says Oetelaar. However, his disability proved to be an advantage. The major course project required students to design something that helped people with disabilities to live at home. “So my class had an edge,” says Oetelaar. In the end, he was glad to have taken on the challenge. “I grew more confident, and I had an amazing time guiding my students through the course and design process. It was quite a relief for me to find my voice.”

Now that Oetelaar has finished his PhD, big decisions are pending. He’s considering either a post-doctoral fellowship or a leap into industry. His ideal job? Working for a design think tank. Says Oetelaar, “You have the opportunity to work in multiple fields over your career, and they’re almost always multi-disciplinary – broad in scope.”

Oetelaar has acquired a taste for broad scopes at the University of Calgary. It’s a tendency that will likely carry him far, whichever door he opens next.

Taylor Oetelaar on …

Teaching: “The best way to make an effective presentation is through practice. And don’t forget that ideas can come from anywhere.”

Travel: “There really is no teacher like being immersed in a culture.”

Responding to setbacks: “In French – c’est la vie. In Italian – che sarà, sarà.”

Automobile design: “A well crafted design is a work of art in its own right.”

Career development: “Start professional networking early because you never know who might be helpful later in your career.”


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