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 gra