Launching careers

Dr Vincent Wheatley has a passion for spaceflight and aerospace engineering, but he is equally excited to watch
the careers of his students take off.

Space. The final frontier. Or at least that’s what it appeared to be when Dr Vincent Wheatley was a child.

“I was always interested in space and science fiction when I was growing up,” Dr Wheatley recalled.

“It was just always a fun, fantastical idea that I could actually have a job building spacecraft.”

As he got older, and universities began mechanical and space engineering projects, Dr Wheatley’s dream became a reality. After graduating from UQ with a Bachelor of Engineering (Mechanical and Space) in 1998 and Master of Engineering Science (Mechanical) in 2001, he went on to obtain his PhD in Aeronautics from the California Institute of Technology in 2005.

He then spent two years as a postdoctoral fellow at ETH Zurich, a science, technology, engineering and mathematics university, and has since built a career guiding a new generation of engineers who share his passion.

Now a senior lecturer at UQ’s School of Mechanical and Mining Engineering, he is an expert in the simulation of hypersonic flows and plasma instabilities.

“One of the advantages of doing a degree at a research-intensive university is that you’re gaining knowledge in the same place as new knowledge is being generated. That helps to excite and engage students. If you’re interested in what you’re doing, you are going to learn more.”

School of Mechanical and Mining Engineering senior lecturer Dr Vincent Wheatley

Dr Wheatley said he strived to make students not only active learners, but intrigued and enthusiastic ones by engaging them in activities based on authentic scenarios from industry or research that were relevant to their future careers.

“One of the advantages of doing a degree at a research-intensive university is that you’re gaining knowledge in the same place as new knowledge is being generated," Dr Wheatley said.

"That helps to excite and engage students. If you’re interested in what you’re doing, you are going to learn more.”

Dr Wheatley uses this approach to teach advanced topics in mechanical and aerospace engineering in contexts ranging from large courses, to thesis and design projects, to the edX Hypersonics massive open online course (MOOC) – a course that attracted students from 129 countries.

He uses his command of the field to develop high-impact resources that engage with UQ students, as well as students from around the world. Many of these resources were developed for the Hypersonics MOOC, which demonstrated that the concept could be successfully applied to advanced technical courses.

For third-year Fluid Dynamics at UQ, a class of 300, he successfully adapted the MOOC resources into a small private online course (SPOC) that enabled a flipped-classroom approach, where all contact hours were used for active problem solving, discussion and reflection.

Dr Wheatley’s approach to education earned him a University of Queensland Award for Teaching Excellence last year. He said the award was proof that what he was doing was having an impact.

“But I’m most proud of the success of my students,” he said.

“Will Landsberg is a great example. He took my fluid mechanics and propulsion courses as an undergraduate and the examples and problems he was presented with based on scramjet engines got him interested in hypersonics.

“Will has used simulations to make ground-breaking performance improvements to UQ’s Mach 12 scramjet engine.”

On top of his success as an educator, Dr Wheatley has made significant contributions to fields of inertial confinement fusion and hypersonics.

Dr Vincent Wheatley with PhD student Will Landsberg (far left) and School of Mechanical and Mining Engineering senior lecturer Dr Anand Veeraragavan.

Dr Vincent Wheatley with PhD student Will Landsberg (far left) and School of Mechanical and Mining Engineering senior lecturer Dr Anand Veeraragavan.

“Inertial confinement fusion is a technique that promises abundant, carbon-free energy production that could potentially solve the world’s energy crisis. Along with my students and collaborators, I have demonstrated that we can design a seed magnetic field to mitigate shock-driven instabilities in plasma implosions, while minimising implosion distortion,” Dr Wheatley said.

“These instabilities are one of the primary roadblocks to achieving inertial confinement fusion in the laboratory.”

In the area of hypersonics, Dr Wheatley’s research has contributed to technology that could meet the need for safer, more economical space access, which has the potential to revolutionise the space industry.

“A major way UQ is creating change in hypersonics is through our outstanding track record in producing highly trained hypersonics researchers,” he said.

“This year, the 125th research higher degree student graduated in hypersonics at UQ. Many of our graduates have progressed to careers in aerospace research organisations around the world, including NASA, DLR, Caltech, Oxford University, Stanford University, the French Grand Ecoles, Airbus, Reaction Engines, Rocket Lab and Boeing, while others have founded their own innovation technology companies.”

For more information about UQ's hypersonics research, visit hypersonics.mechmining.uq.edu.au or read the Research Impact story.

Read more about UQ's amazing change makers.