The Columns

Eleni Timas ‘17: Swept up in Science Meet Eleni Timas ‘17, a chemical engineering major who has been swept up studying tornadoes.

— by on April 12th, 2017

“I saw the opportunity to synthesize the material I was learning in both classes, and thought analyzing weather conditions with fluid mechanics techniques was an interesting application.”     

Meet Eleni Timas ‘17, a chemical engineering major who has been swept up studying tornados!Meet Eleni Timas ‘17, a chemical engineering major who has been swept up in studying tornadoes.


Science, Society, and the Arts is a multi-disciplinary conference where Washington and Lee undergraduates and law students present their academic achievements before an audience of their peers and the faculty. Through the conference, students, faculty and staff alike have the opportunity to explore new topics and discuss new ideas. Conference participants share their work via oral presentations, traditional academic conference-style panels, poster sessions, artistic shows, creative performances, or various other methods.

Even though SSA has ended, you can still enjoy these stories about the many interesting projects and performances presented by the students.

Tornado Analysis with Fluid Mechanic Techniques

Q. Can you describe your project?

The way humans approach a particular day or a particular series of days is based on several different factors, one of which is the weather. It may influence our mood, our planned activities and even our choice of clothing. When the weather becomes extreme, like in the case of tornadoes, its influence on these circumstances becomes increasingly greater. Tornadoes can affect the state of one’s home, the safety of loved ones and, in some cases, an entire community’s future. For this reason, the ability to understand, analyze and predict a tornado is vitally important. Fluid mechanics allows scientists to investigate conditions that indicate a tornado’s formation, while also predicting its path and the damage it will likely cause. My analysis will look in particular at the Mulhall, Oklahoma tornado of May 3, 1999. I investigated the event using concepts of vorticity, deformation, streamline functions and pressure fields used in fluid mechanics research.

Q. What about the topic made you explore it?

At the time, I was taking both fluid mechanics and math methods for physics and engineering. In math methods we were discussing how vector fields could be used to describe wind patterns in tornadoes, while in fluid mechanics we were learning how vector fields can be used to understand pressure gradients, and how a differential fluid element may be deformed in a particular vector field. I saw the opportunity to synthesize the material I was learning in both classes, and thought analyzing weather conditions with fluid mechanics techniques was an interesting application.      

Q. What was the most interesting thing you learned while working on this project?

Prior to this investigation, I did not know the underlying driving mechanisms of a tornado. The pressure changes, just as much as the temperature changes, produce the violent winds we associate with tornadoes. Learning about these different features shaped the analysis techniques I applied to the system in both a macro scale, looking at the bulk rotation of the tornado, and a micro scale, in quantifying the rotation of a differential fluid element within the tornado.

Q. What was the biggest challenge you faced?

I decided to analyze a particular tornado, the Mulhall, Oklahoma tornado, rather than examine tornadoes in a general way. I wanted the parameters of the model for example, the height, width and wind speed of the tornado at different elevations to be as realistic as possible. It took several iterations to achieve this while maintaining the properties that govern the structure of a tornado.

Q. What insight or insights did you gain during the research period?

In many science classes, we are working with a model that closely describes what we observe in real life, but may not be exactly accurate. To account for these inconsistencies, we make assumptions about the system to make the model more applicable. Applying these assumptions out of the classroom to a real-world example really indicated their influence in a tangible way.  

Q. What is your favorite part of creating, researching, or developing this project?

I plan to attend graduate school after W&L and become an engineer. By nature, I enjoy mathematical problem solving, and applying what I know to systems I have not considered before. This project challenged me to do that, and it was a process I enjoyed very much!   

Q. What does SSA mean to you?

This is my second time presenting at SSA, and I felt the same about it then as I do now excited! This excitement is caused by the flow of interesting topics, experiments and overall knowledge that is passed from person to person in each of these SSA session. Personally, I like hearing and learning about topics that have required a lot of time, research and interest on behalf of the presenters. It gives a glimpse into a world that I’m unfamiliar with and allows me to share in their excitement, their research, and their interests that I previously would not have experienced.

Q. Why is SSA considering science, society, and arts together important to this campus?

Washington and Lee prides itself on giving students a liberal arts foundation while also challenging students in their field of study. I think SSA is a celebration of that. We get to showcase topics that we care about and dedicated a lot of time to perfecting. Through sharing this work we are stimulating conversation and building bridges across interests and different departments.

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