Engineer and artist: Glaucio Paulino plans to take risks and blur boundaries as the new Jones Chair

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Glaucio Paulino has the heart and soul of an artist, straining against the structured thinking of a sharp and analytical mind.

And it works for him.

Paulino joined the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering in January as the new Raymond Allen Jones Chair. He specializes in computational mechanics, topology optimization, meta-materials and the emerging field of origami engineering, and he’s a structural engineer bent on pushing the boundaries of the field.

So much of the work Paulino does crosses traditional boundaries between disciplines, bringing together structural engineering and mechanics with architecture, mathematics, industrial engineering, even medicine. And fine art is the next frontier for such collaboration, Paulino said recently from his still-Spartan office high in the Mason Building.

“See, I am an engineer. I was trained in mathematics, in mechanics. I think very formally all the time,” he said. “Many times, I have too many rules, too many things that I need to follow. But the artist doesn’t care. The artist is disruptive by nature, and he or she wants to be disruptive, wants to break down all the structures and all the preconceived notions.

“If these two can communicate and collaborate synergistically through creative destruction, I think we can have the next breakthrough of the millennium.”

In particular, he sees the possibility of a major advance in origami engineering, a field Paulino has been pioneering in recent years. He and his colleagues are studying the ancient art of paper folding to find new ways to apply it to modern engineering challenges, developing new kinds of structures that are reconfigurable and deployable.

A project from one of Glaucio Paulino's Ph.D. students, Ke Liu, illustrates the possibilities of origami engineering. The two sheets are Miura-Ori origami, but manufacturing defects in the yellow sheet means it cannot be folded flat. Paulino said this research shows more study is needed to understand the effects of manufacturing uncertainties on origami-like, scalable structures. (Photos Courtesy Glaucio Paulino.)

These structures can occupy almost no space when folded up and take up much more volume once they’re deployed. And the applications range from robotics to photovoltaic cells to sustainable buildings.

It’s one of the areas Paulino said he will use the “freedom” of the Jones Chair to explore.

“The possibility to have some funds for you to take risks, intellectual risks, is priceless,” Paulino said, noting that revolutionary advances are possible when scientists can take such risks and indulge their ideas. “I don’t have that opportunity with any funding agency. No funding agency is going to fund an unproven concept, or an idea that is too risky. But as the Jones Chair, I can do that.”

Paulino also wants to focus his energy on what are known as meta-materials. These are materials with extreme and exotic properties — for example, high energy absorption and fracture resistance — that could have powerful applications.

Consider what happens when you stretch a rubber band. As it gets longer, it also gets thinner. Imagine a material that does the opposite: as it stretches in one direction, its cross-section actually grows wider. Paulino and his research team are working on conceptual models of these kinds of new substances (what scientists call auxetic materials)

A model of a concept design for an upper bridge spanning several building towers. Glaucio Paulino and his colleagues created the design using their topology optimization techniques. The architects wanted a design that was more interesting and unique than traditional truss designs. (Photo Courtesy of Glaucio Paulino and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.)

The group also works extensively in topology optimization, and this is an area where Paulino, the artist, really emerges. Paulino uses optimization techniques to help design buildings that are one-of-a-kind projects around the world. “Dream buildings,” he called them. The kind of projects you only do once.

Paulino has extended that work into facial reconstruction surgery, working with cancer surgeon Michael Miller at the Ohio State University Medical Center. Their collaboration has the potential one day to change the lives of cancer patients, veterans wounded on the battlefield, and others with severe facial damage or deformities.

“Many times, [the facial reconstruction] doesn’t work very well,” Paulino said. “Restoring normal function and appearance after massive facial injuries with bone loss is an important unsolved problem in surgery. For example, the doctor may get a bone from other parts of the body, like the fibula, and shape that bone to perform the craniofacial reconstruction. But this region is a very complicated region in the body — while it has a lot of functions, it is also highly susceptible to bacterial infection. It’s a very small area with many basic life functions: breathing, speaking, chewing, and swallowing. A lot of functional requirements need to be maintained when the doctor does that surgery.”

“The idea here was to use topology optimization — it is the first time this has been done — to offer alternatives to the doctor,” Paulino said. “The technique is tailored for the specific patient. We use the geometry of the patient, the MRI from the patient, the biology from the patient, the tissue properties … to find what is the best scenario or alternative scenarios that the doctor can use to help the patient when he or she does the craniofacial reconstruction.”

Paulino came to the School from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he was the Donald Biggar Willett professor of engineering for 15 years. He brought five Ph.D. students with him, who are already engaged in their work and in classes at Georgia Tech. He said he was attracted by Tech’s place in a cosmopolitan city with an airport that can link him to almost any destination in the world.

Paulino said he also felt something special when he visited that he couldn’t ignore.

“I felt a lot of energy here in the School, a lot of energy on campus. The challenges and the opportunities here seem to be great. That was very attractive,” he said. “I felt that Georgia Tech is in an ascending slope.”