Student Spotlight: Liam White

| Thu, 01/04/24
Liam White, a doctoral student pursuing a degree in computational science through the Department of Scientific Computing.
Liam White, a doctoral student pursuing a degree in computational science through the Department of Scientific Computing. Photo by Ferran Rivas.

Liam White is a doctoral student pursuing a degree in computational science through Florida State University’s Department of Scientific Computing, part of the College of Arts and Sciences. In 2019, White earned his bachelor’s degree in computer science with a minor in physics from Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Florida. At FSU, he’s conducted research with the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Institute’s fire dynamics program and held various positions at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Knoxville, Tennessee. White is currently completing his doctoral studies at ORNL as a research and development assistant staff member.

Tell us a little about your background, where you’re from and what brought you to FSU.

I’m from Kingston, Ontario, and I immigrated to the U.S. in 2016. Before immigrating, I completed part of a business degree at the University of Ottawa. Business wasn’t my thing, but I enjoyed the computer science electives I took. When I went back to school, I earned my bachelor’s degree in computer science.

During undergrad, I decided to pursue my doctorate. FSU is home to one of very few computational science doctoral programs in the U.S., and my tour of the department solidified my decision as I met department faculty and saw their research firsthand. I could tell there was a welcoming community here and knew I’d learn a lot.

What inspired you to pursue a degree in computational science?

I was initially drawn to the field because of the ability to build something tangible with computer programming. Essentially, computational science is the application of computer science to every other scientific discipline. When pen and paper calculations can’t cut it, computational science is able to step in and simulate various processes.

What do you want the public to know about your research? Why are your topics important?

I research novel toolpath planning methodologies for additive and subtractive manufacturing processes, such as 3D printing and computer numerical control machining. I conduct my research in ORNL’s Manufacturing Science Division in partnership with FSU’s Department of Scientific Computing. My work tells the machine where and how to move as well as how much material to deposit or subtract. Some of the things we manufacture, like wind turbine blades, coincide with the Department of Energy’s mission to reduce our carbon footprint. We can make blades stronger and more durable for longer lifecycles, and we can also manufacture them on-site, negating the carbon footprint of shipping.

Tell us about your research with ORNL.

Before starting graduate school, I first worked with ORNL as a post-bachelor's intern from January 2020 to May 2021 and developed a novel skeleton toolpath algorithm, which I recently published. I returned to ORNL the following summer after starting my doctorate, and I really enjoyed the work. Thankfully, FSU’s Department of Scientific Computing was amenable to me finishing my doctoral research here in Knoxville.

All my novel toolpath planning research is integrated into ORNL Slicer 2, which is the lab’s in-house slicing software; however, we recently received a copyright for it, so it’s now available to the public as an open-source software.

We’re currently exploring the integration of physics into the slicing process — when a 3D model file is converted into a machine language to be recognized by the printer. The lab’s mechanical engineers design parts with functional requirements such as a certain amount of strength along a dimension or the ability to withstand a certain amount of stress in a specific area. Then, they must map these functional requirements to over 500 settings in ORNL Slicer 2 to produce the desired part. Our team aims to automate that process, taking physical knowledge and automatically generating the most efficient paths to satisfy the specific functional requirements.

What is something people may not know about studying computational science?

Computational science is an incredibly broad field with applicability to a wide range of complementary disciplines. I went from researching computational fire dynamics to additive manufacturing, and I use the same research ideas.

What aspect of your areas of study do you find most rewarding?

Physically building things without having to do so in the traditional sense is incredibly rewarding. In addition to the wind turbine blades, ORNL Slicer 2 has been used to manufacture a Shelby Cobra replica, a nuclear reactor for testing, a NASA rover wheel, full-scale buildings, and a submarine for the U.S. Navy. Seeing all of those come to fruition through code is rewarding for me.

What on-campus resources have helped you achieve success?

I was inducted into the FSU Fellows Society when I started grad school, and it’s been the biggest resource for me because of the other students and programs I’ve been introduced to.

Are there any faculty or staff who have helped or inspired you?

My adviser, associate professor of scientific computing, and faculty associate of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Institute Bryan Quaife has been an instrumental part of my journey. I met him on my initial tour, and he was a major reason why I chose FSU. He’s accepting and willing to work at your level to guide you every step of the way.

I met professor of physics and dean of the graduate school Mark Riley through the Fellows Society, and he’s supported me through my graduate journey. It’s nice to know FSU faculty genuinely care.

What are some current goals or projects that you are working on?

I defended my prospectus in October, and I hope to graduate next summer, which is ambitious considering it would be during year four of a five-year doctoral program.

I’d also love to be involved in the space industry. I’m slowly moving into it with certain projects at the lab, like printing the NASA rover wheel. One of my biggest goals is to make something that goes to space.

What advice do you have for fellow students? What advice do you have for undergrads?

Explore all your options and opportunities. It’s okay to change directions if the program you’re in isn’t the right fit. I’ve switched paths quite a few times, and it’s led me to a research career I absolutely love. There're plenty of opportunities at FSU — you just need to find them.