Research in Engineering Part 1: An Interview with Professor Atila Novoselac


Abraham Peek | Assistant Editor of Social Sciences

Dr. Atila Novoselac is an associate professor in Cockrell’s Department of Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering. He’s an expert in Architectural Engineering and Building Energy and Environments and has worked on more sponsored projects (sixteen) than Novak Djoković has had Tennis Grand Slam wins (twelve). His research interests include ventilation and indoor air quality, modeling of built environments, building energy analysis, and Demand Response Energy Management Technology.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I grew up in Serbia, where I finished my undergraduate and master’s degrees. I was first trained as a mechanical engineer, but specializing in building systems. I also worked for five years in academia and industry related fields – high end projects in forensic engineering, consulting, and research. After my master’s, which I got while working, I decided to go for my PhD. I applied to several schools in Great Britain and the United States. The Penn State program gave me an offer as an assistant researcher, and that’s how I ended up at Penn in 2000.

In 2005, I finished my PhD in Architectural Engineering, focusing on mechanical systems. During my PhD, my specialization shifted from some applied research to theoretical research around numerical methods using computational physics. When I finished, I was considering my options. I liked academia because it’s a nice mix between teaching and researching. I got an offer from UT, and I came here in 2005.

Can you tell us about the research you do here at UT?

I do mostly environmental control systems and research on the energy performance of buildings. And, because it’s heavily influenced by environmental control systems, I research problems related to health of the building and its occupants which result from buildings, their environments, and their use. My Ph.D. was focused around modern transport phenomena, so I apply a lot of fluid dynamics to my research.

What do you mean by modern transport phenomena?

The modern transport phenomena are the mechanisms of all that is happening from the source to the occupant. It includes some kind of surface emission, transport through the space, and then exposure. It can be applied to gases, especially aerosols. So, we’re following pollutants from the source to the occupant. For example, if you’re looking at what happens with pollutants — emission of VOCs from paint — and their transmission from the source to the point of interest, which is the occupant, it might be driven by airflow distribution or surface bonding condition.


Associate Professors Atila Novoselac and Ying Xu demonstrate particle analyzers.

How does the research process work at UT?

Research is really wide. I just described some examples which are really broad. But we have PhD students who spend a few years just digging and solving some unsolved problems in their field. Then a solution and a model will come out that another student can use in a larger picture. There are more applied research problems where you have to provide an answer to an industry-related problem, or you’re digging deeper and trying to find some fundamental principal which will be used in other research.

Research here is driven by — well, research isn’t free — funding. You have to apply for grants and persuade that your idea is worth funding. You have to show that your ideas are valid and that someone’s willing to invest in them. Sometimes applied research is funded by government agencies. Exposure studies are mostly funded by the EPA. But, when a consortium of different companies want to develop guidelines for new equipment, or figure out how to use a mechanism best, they have a strong interest in funding scientific research into their needs.

For example, one of my big industry-related donors is ASHRAE, American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Engineers, which oversees developing codes and standards for buildings. How much fresh air do you need in buildings in order to operate properly? How are you going to distribute that air? I currently have a project which is about how to calculate how big your equipment should be so that you don’t waste your money, but your building still works as efficiently as possible.

What’s the most exciting thing you’ve ever found in your research?

There are different things. Sometimes you get really, really deep and resolve a problem that’s been bothering you for years. We noticed there was some sort of phenomenon with particle resuspension in an environment, but when we put it in a lab, we couldn’t get it to happen. We developed a mechanism which takes into account the reality of the environment. It’s the kind of research that won’t be read on a wide scale, so it’s not visible. The paper we published on that will be read by a very narrow demographic, but in 10 years, 20 years, it will be used more and more as it becomes a more fundamental principle in future research.

But then there’s other research that’s more applied. For example, we developed a mechanism on how to see whether your building is failing, and we called it “Check Engine Lite” for your house. We were trying to figure out what kind of failures in a building we can detect by just looking at Smart meter data, or data collected by every energy company about energy consumption. This is much more applied research—it’s much more important to improve existing buildings, rather than new buildings, because we have a failure of building systems in this country where they don’t operate as they were designed and use more and more energy.

We are replacing buildings at a rate of 2% per year. We have to figure out mechanisms on how to fix problems, but to do that, we need mechanisms to know that there is a problem. Rough estimates say that every third building has a problem. People just don’t know. They don’t know that when they pay for air conditioning, they’re paying to air condition the attic. Before you can fix it, you need to know there is a problem. You can call someone to come and check every year, but that costs money. We found mechanisms which, with very, very little data, tell us that there’s a problem with your mechanical systems based on energy consumption.

Have you started distributing the software?

Yes, all our research is public. Most of our grants come from the federal government; only in very few situations will we not publish our research. We publish everything that we find, unless we sign a non-disclosure agreement. 90% or more is this very open public research. My research is mostly funded by agencies which want publication and dissemination of those ideas as soon as possible.

Atila2 Are there any parts of your research you don’t like doing?

The tough part is getting grants – persuading other people they should fund your research. It’s painful because competition is fearsome, which is good because competition means quality, but there’s less and less research funding. It’s more and more difficult to get it. But it’s part of the job.

The part which you don’t like is when you have a really great idea and you just don’t get funding. Then you try to improve your ideas and go to some other agency. It’s good that it’s there because you need checks on your research, but we spend so much time on obtaining grants to the point that we don’t have time to do research because we’re busy applying for grants. Then you finally do get it and you can’t work on research because you’re busy applying for new grants. The good side of the system improves the quality of work, but it’s not so easy.

Have you ever had to put an idea on hold because of funding?

Grants are moving from one topic to the other—as I was doing my PhD, a large number of grants were in computational fluid dynamics (which is how I came to what I was doing), and then it was biomechanics, and now biochemistry, and tomorrow it’ll be the next big thing. So you have to be flexible, somewhat. You can’t go to an area that you’re not an expert at, but you have to be flexible enough so that you can figure out how your expertise can figure into some new area of research.

Today, more and more research is going to these big collaborative teams of many experts. Collaboration is very important, and somehow making sure you can fit your expertise to other fields and expose your research to other people is very important.

Do you have any advice for undergraduates hoping to get into research, particularly in engineering?

Make sure you get exposure to research as soon as possible so that you can see how it works. Sometimes a student will ask me if he or she needs to go to grad school to be a good engineer, and I tell them no. A Masters will give you more skills, and you are definitely going to be immediately better, but you can still be an excellent engineer with undergrad only.

If you go into research, a master’s is definitely a first step, but as an undergrad you can still get involved and get experience solving some more complicated problems or work under a master’s student. And then there’s a Ph.D., where you prove that you can solve a complex problem on your own and shake it to the ground to all its outcomes. Ph.D. means focusing down and proving that you can do research independently. Masters’ students are guided, and Ph.D. students are guided at the beginning. But at a certain point, I sit down with them and they ask me a question, and I tell them, “I have no clue, you’re teaching me now.” That’s the time you figure out they’re independent and they can go do their own research.

It seems like you really enjoy what you do.

I do. I compare it to being an eternal student: you’re always learning. There’s more responsibility, but you’re always in school, and there’s more flexibility. When I was in industry, I didn’t enjoy solving the same problem time and time again. The first time you struggle and learn a lot, the second time you’re good, and the third time you’re good, but it’s boring. In academia, I get new problems every time. Engineering is problem solving, and I get to apply that to the highest level.

Professor Atila Novoselac is a Robert and Francis Stark Centennial Fellow and runs three UT laboratories. His research interests include ventilation, indoor air quality, and building energy systems. His research has been sponsored by the UT Faculty Innovation Grant, Samsung Group, and The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers.


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