Meeting Monica Martinez Wilhelmus

As the Fluids faculty at Brown continues to expand, Assistant Professor Monica Martinez Wilhelmus tackles tangible contributions to climate science.

Born and raised in Mexico City, Monica Martinez Wilhelmus believes her story is common among Latin communities: She comes from a family that values a strong work ethic and insists on hard work. “My parents were very strict about us being good students and being mindful of the opportunities that were given to us,” she said. “My parents always mentioned that the one thing they would leave us with is an education. They invested their time and efforts into that.”

Monica Martinez WilhelmusMartinez Wilhelmus studied at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), earning her undergraduate degree in 2010 in mechanical engineering. “It was a great experience, but it was a difficult environment to navigate,” she said. “There were only two women at that time in my class and I could never find the other one. Nonetheless, I am very grateful for receiving such a good education. Near the end of my degree, I did an exchange semester at the Technische Universitaet Muenchen (TUM), which was eye-opening. It was impressive to see that my undergrad at UNAM was comparable to what you would get at top universities outside of Mexico.”

Yet, for all its academic rigor and rank, it was top of mind for Martinez Wilhelmus to look for opportunities abroad when it was time to further her education. “I was fascinated with the work from (CalTech professor) John Dabiri, the idea of learning from nature and implementing key design principles into engineering systems was very inspiring. I went to join his group right after undergrad to pursue my Ph.D. at CalTech.

“After CalTech (where she earned her Ph.D. in 2016), I considered returning to Mexico as a way to give back. I had this amazing education, but evaluating the options, it was really hard. The amount of resources for research in Mexico are slim, which made it a really difficult choice. That’s why UCR was a really great alternative,” Martinez Wilhelmus said, referencing her first assistant professorship at the University of California Riverside.

“UCR has a large Hispanic community and the UC system is in many aspects similar to the system at UNAM. In that sense, I felt like I was giving back to my people without going back to my country. And also when I visited their campus, it was just so open. There was a comfort there, so I felt really happy to be part of that community.”

In early 2020, the challenges of the pandemic and new motherhood inspired Martinez Wilhelmus to reflect on her professional trajectory and goals. “I looked back and I thought, ‘What do I want to do next?’ I wanted to come to a place that allowed me to have a platform to build something lasting, something that would have an impact. Brown was perfect for that,” she said.

Since her arrival on College Hill, Martinez Wilhelmus has been actively recruiting undergraduate and graduate students along with postdoctoral scholars, thereby putting together an interdisciplinary group inspired to make tangible contributions on relevant problems. “I think that’s motivating, particularly to undergrads,” she said. “Our research will help structure the next generation of climate models. The work we do has to do with some of the most concerning problems of our time. The type of lab that I’m creating is a big group of young people that are excited and motivated toward that goal, and I think now is a great time for people to join. We’re all starting out hungry. We have projects, but want more. When we have group meetings, the mood and atmosphere feel limitless. In comparison to an established lab, we’re still in the creating, expanding, and exploring phases where there is room for creativity.”

I wanted to come to a place that allowed me to have a platform for growth to build something lasting, something that would have impact. Brown was perfect for that.

Monica Martinez Wilhelmus Assistant Professor of Engineering

Martinez Wilhelmus’ research work at Brown has already advanced on three distinct paths, thanks to monetary awards from the U.S. Navy and NASA. The unifying theme is transport phenomena related to environmental processes.

Using sea ice to address climate science is one way she hopes to make tangible contributions. She maintains we simply don’t know enough about how the ocean behaves, nor how to simplify and model it in a way to run accurate climate models. In the ocean, there is a wide range of scales, and smaller scales are oftentimes not incorporated into big scale models. Martinez Wilhelmus intends to use the sea ice in the Arctic as a proxy or tracer for ocean currents to provide useful information by quantifying how the ice is moving. The group is working with several other groups at different universities to interpret the satellite imagery, to gather more observations, and to incorporate them into numerical models.

Another project she is taking on is an extension of her graduate work with Dabiri. Collective motion is a widespread phenomenon observed in nature, from bacteria to humans. Martinez Wilhelmus studies mesozooplankton aggregations migrating up and down the water column in the ocean, as a response mechanism against predators in an effort to understand whether these self-propelled organisms are engineers of their own environment. This project brings together remote sensing observations, lab-informed numerical models for swimmers, and global circulation models to determine the role mesozooplankton aggregations play in actively sustaining their own ecosystem.

The third project the Wilhelmus Lab is working on is developing the next generation of robotic swimmers. Most underwater vehicles are either too slow or too fast, so the lab is working to understand how organisms that are able to move in between these two bounds do it, and how they are effective at maneuvering and living in complex marine environments. Would it be possible to replicate clusters of underwater systems that can move in groups, that are small in size and can effectively complete tasks underwater? All of her projects are currently taking place in shared spaces with other fluids faculty, while the Wilhelmus Lab continues to be outfitted on the third floor of the Engineering Research Center.

She is also working to formulate a turbulence-based course for the fall of 2022, but knows well that her mentorship doesn’t begin and end at the lab or classroom doors. “When I was a student, it was really difficult to make the decision of pursuing an academic path, because there simply was not enough representation for women. Most of my professors were men. We didn’t see enough examples, and that’s important. Being a young mom, I struggle, but it’s something I let my students see, in the hope they will know it is not always easy. If it’s something that you want, you can make it work. When I was a student, I didn’t see that much. I didn’t see the part of how family life fits into being a professor.”

Martinez Wilhelmus joins a collaborative fluids group at Brown as its fifth tenure-track faculty hire in the past decade. “They’ve created this very unique place where you have a very focused group of people that are specialized in fluid mechanics. That was a huge attraction to me, being part of a small community of people that collaborate. It’s very intellectually stimulating. Everyone is really approachable and eager to connect to work together, which is very exciting to me. And then on top of that, there is a very clear and honest interest for students’ learning. They care about their students and value teaching. I think that’s pretty unique to have a leading research institution value teaching on that level.”