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Meet Richard Li: Mechanical Engineering PhD Student

Updated: Oct 8, 2020

Nanotech NYC sits down with students, faculty and researchers from across the city to give those interested a glimpse into the local nanotechnology scene. Today we sit down with Richard Li, a 5th year PhD student in the Mechanical Engineering Department at Columbia University.

Richard Li, Mechanical Engineering PhD student at Columbia University

Tell us a little bit about where you are from.

I was born in Syracuse, NY, but my family eventually moved to Holmdel, a small suburban-ish town in central New Jersey. If you want to know what my high school was like, think of a cross between "Better Luck Tomorrow" and "Jersey Shore." Holmdel at the time was sort of interesting in that it had large swaths of farmland, but just down the street from these grazing cattle was an enormous Bell Labs research complex where world-leading research was taking place. My parents worked at Bell Labs in its heyday. As a kid, I didn't care much for the actual work that was going on, but I remember there were big Christmas parties, special events like cultural nights, and movie screenings in a big private theater. A cool little piece of trivia is that Holmdel is home to the Horn Antenna, which two Bell Labs employees used to inadvertently discover cosmic microwave background radiation, providing evidence for the Big Bang theory and earning a Nobel Prize in Physics.

Where did you complete your undergraduate and any graduate degrees prior to this one?

I got a bachelor's in civil engineering and a certificate (minor) in architecture from Princeton University. I was an architecture major for a year before I decided I wanted to do something more "concrete." (Pun intended.) Later, I completed my master's in civil engineering and engineering mechanics at Columbia University before deciding to stick around for the PhD program in mechanical engineering.

Rich uses an electrical discharge machine (EDM) to cut metallic substrates for his microlattices.

After completing your undergraduate degree at Princeton, you entered the United States Navy? Can you tell us what lead you to that decision?

Yes, it's one of the best decisions I have ever made. There were a lot of factors. I was a high school junior during 9/11, and from our school we could see the smoke billowing from the towers. By the time I was in college, many of my peers were fighting and dying through the worst of the Iraq War. I had also had the chance to travel overseas and see how extremely fortunate we are to live in this country. I felt compelled to do my part. On the practical side, I also needed money for school, and I saw that the Navy was offering scholarships for high demand specialties like engineers and lawyers. It was serendipitous, and there was no question for me after that.

Can you tell us about your time in the Navy?

I was commissioned as a Civil Engineer Corps (Seabee) officer. During my 6 years of active duty I was based in 3 different duty stations. My first job was as a platoon commander and logistics officer at Naval Mobile Construction Battalion ELEVEN (yes, we like to capitalize our numbers) in Gulfport, Mississippi. We went to Afghanistan in 2009 to build up infrastructure to support President Obama's troop surge. I was responsible for basically all logistics surrounding our unit's activities, from scheduling flights and supply missions to ordering circuit breakers and loading lumber onto helicopters. We stayed on a big base that was relatively safe, except for the poorly aimed rockets that were fired upon us nearly every night.

My second duty station was at Naval Air Station Meridian, Mississippi as the Facilities Engineering and Acquisition Division Director. I managed a small office which was responsible for all construction and maintenance contracts on the base. We oversaw projects like airfield improvements and the construction of a new child care center and gym.

My third and final duty station was in Little Creek, VA as an engineer embedded with a SEAL team. Of course, we went to Afghanistan. There, I managed the maintenance, repair, and distribution of nearly all our equipment, including generators, tactical vehicles, weapons systems, counter-IED systems, and communications gear. I had my own team of over 50 sailors, soldiers, and civilians spread across multiple sites in the country. It was a massive effort. I also got to drive through and see a lot of the beautiful Afghanistan countryside. That was very cool.

After the Navy, you worked as an engineer in New York City. Tell us a bit about that and what lead you to go back to school for your PhD.

I worked as a structural engineer at Robert Silman Associates, designing foundations and structural framing for schools, apartment buildings, and other structures in the city. My pet project was a cantilevering canopy on East 34th St. The design process involved a combination of CAD, finite element modelling, and old school hand calculations. The work was interesting for a while, but I eventually realized that I was still spending much more time at a desk than I would like. I decided to go back to school for a master's degree and try my hand at lab work, which I envisioned would be more hands-on. It helped immensely that I had the GI Bill and didn't have to worry about tuition and rent. I loved the lab and research work so much that I decided to stay on for a PhD.

Rich using a chemical vapor deposition furnace to deposit graphene used in his research.

What is your current status as a graduate student?

I am beginning my 5th year in the Mechanical Engineering PhD program. I hope to graduate and maybe get a full night of sleep by the end of 2020.

What group are you in and what is the group’s overall focus?

I am in the Small Scale Mechanics Lab led by Professor Jeffrey Kysar. We have a mix of projects. Maybe our group motto should be something like, "If it's small, we can do it all." Currently, the group's biggest project focuses on the mechanics of the round window membrane, which separates the inner ear from the middle ear, and developing mechanisms for drug delivery through this membrane. My predecessors in the group made the measurements that established graphene as the strongest known material, so some of us are continuing their work on the mechanical properties and applications of graphene. We also have a project developing experiments and theory for crystal plasticity in metals.

What is your particular research on?

I have two projects. My nano-related project aims to fabricate graphene composite materials. Although graphene is very strong, it is only a membrane with negligible bending stiffness. Trying to build a structure with graphene would be like trying to build something with Saran wrap. Combining graphene with a polymer would provide the graphene with some support and allow us to take advantage of its strength. Typically, this is done by dispersing graphene platelets in a polymer matrix, but these platelets are discontinuous, and the distribution and orientation of this graphene reinforcement is stochastic. We are developing a way to prescribe the 3D spatial arrangement of a continuous graphene network within a polymer matrix.

My other project is a collaboration with the Department of Surgery at Columbia University Medical Center. The goal of this project is to develop a growth-accommodating heart valve for pediatric patients. Currently, infants or children who need heart valve replacements will undergo open-heart surgery and receive valves that are fixed in size. The patient soon outgrows the valve and must return for another open-heart surgery to replace the valve with a larger one. Each surgery is traumatic, risky, and costly. Our proposed solution is an expandable heart valve that can be implanted once, and then subsequently dilated to accommodate the child's growth using transcatheter balloon dilation, which is a much less invasive procedure.

Rich uses a nanoindenter to test the mechanical properties of the microlattices he fabricates.

Can you tell me about some potential future applications for your work?

Strong graphene-based composites could be useful for lightweight armor and aircraft components. Since graphene also has superb electrical properties, one could also make a composite material that is both strong and conductive. For the heart valves, we want to save kids' lives and save their parents' $$$!

How did you figure out you wanted to specialize in this area?

I sort of haphazardly wandered into these subjects. I was just a relatively clueless master's student with zero research experience, and these happened to be the projects that were available. I don't think there is any discipline of physical engineering that I wouldn't like. Whether it's environmental engineering or materials engineering, it's all about drawing on the latest science to make new and interesting stuff. It's all very exciting. I wish I could do everything, but in terms of career and personal finances, I think it's prudent to pick just one (or two..maybe three?…).

Are there any skills you learned in the Navy that you have found helpful in pursuing your PhD?

Going to Afghanistan was like going to the wild west. The military had some infrastructure in place, but it was often slow and unreliable. Sometimes, the quickest way to get things done was to go around and make friends and barter if needed. It's similar in the research world. You can dig and dig through the literature for a solution, but often it's faster to go straight to the experts (or other users in the clean room) and ask.

One useful mindset that I picked up is that nothing is impossible. When the commander is asking for something, "It can't be done" is never an acceptable answer. The only question should be whether it is worth committing the time and resources required to get it done. The same applies for research work. Some problems seem insurmountable at first, but so far, I've found that if I dig deep enough in the literature or ask enough people, there's always a solution.

Where do you hope to take your career after you complete your PhD?

When people ask me this question, my usual answer is that I plan to sell coconuts on the street. I am only half-joking. To me, the coconut vendor has a pretty good job because if he sells 100, then he knows he has made 100 people very happy. It's much tougher in the research world to know if your work will actually make an impact on people's lives. I'm aiming for something in-between, where I can do cutting-edge research and still see a more immediate and positive impact from my work. Currently, it seems like continuing with biomedical research is a good option, but I'm open to anything.

Rich giving his daughter an early intro to surfing.

What do you do for fun outside of your program?

Hanging out with my wife and daughter, who is a toddler now. My daughter is sort of an adrenaline junkie, so it's fun (and exhausting) trying to keep her entertained. Also, I started surfing about three years ago. NYC actually has some pretty decent surf breaks over in the Rockaways. My goal is to surf like this guy: link.

If you could go back to the first day you started your graduate work and tell yourself one thing, what would it be?

Stop trying to re-create your military life and move on. I read this somewhere in an article for transitioning veterans. I had been having trouble letting go of all the good things from my Navy time - sense of mission, camaraderie, travel, and adventure. I was trying unsuccessfully to find these in the civilian world, and it was making me bitter and dissatisfied. After reading that article, I realized that military service is a unique but temporary phase in life, like childhood or high school. It would better, and perhaps more Zen-like, to accept that. Then, with all my acquired military skills and experience, I could seek out ways to make the most of my next chapters in life. Plus, leaving the Navy was my choice, and I knew there were lots of things to look forward to with my newfound freedom. If there are any other veterans out there who are struggling like I was, I hope they also find this mindset to be helpful.

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