10 questions with Dr. Nariman Mahabadi


Dr. Mahabadi

Nariman Mahabadi, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Civil Engineering at The University of Akron. He received his doctoral degree  in 2016 from the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment at Arizona State University. Dr. Mahabadi has been at UA since 2019. 

1. You have been busy this summer working on some interesting research on leaf venation and extraction. First of allcan you tell us what that is?  

A hot topic these days is bioinspiration — which is using systems found in nature to engineer something new. In my case, I am interested in using the vascular patterns on leaves (called leaf venation networks) to design engineering structures. These patterns have evolved over millions of years. How water and nutrients move throughout the leaf has improved, as has its physical make-up which supports the entire structure against different loading conditions. Extraction means we will use microscopic images to digitize the geometry of networks. We will use this geometry later to perform numerical simulations.

2. What question or challenge were you setting out to address when you started this? 

Plant leaves contain a vascular system of interconnected micro-size veins. The commonly held belief is that their design allows fluid to move efficiently, while providing high resilience in case of injury to the veinsGuided and inspired from nature, our research aims to test this hypothesis.

The most important scientific question for our group is: How can we use a similar approach to design large scale engineering systems, like drainage systems or traffic networks?    

3. Tell us about the research 

This is a collaborative multi-disciplinary research project between the Civil Engineering Department at The University of Akron and a research group from UC Berkeley lead by biologist Dr. Ben Blonder. UC Berkeley is developing a database of various species of plant leaves around the world. At UA, we are working on developing tools to simulate the flow transport and mechanical response of leaves in the database.

4. What are the possible real-world applications? 

Think of the improvements that could be made any engineering systems that deal with flow, current or traffic transportation problems. This could include large-scale engineering systems like water distribution or drainage networks, or traffic networks to small-scale engineering systems like lithium battery systems where the porous electrode microstructure plays a critical role on the efficiency of the battery.  

5. Why is your area of scientific discovery important (or relevant) for the average person? 

Take drainage systems, for example. They are plagued with issues, mainly because of the improper performance of drainage networks. The impact of such failures could significantly reduce the expected water management or flood protection service levels and would lead to catastrophic consequences such as loss of lives or damage to properties and critical infrastructure.

Within the past decade, as climate change and urban flooding have become increasingly urgent challenges, the design of sustainable and resilient drainage systems have become more critical than ever. By inspiration from nature, we hope to address some of these challenges.  

6. Do you have an analogy to help me understand your work?   

Leaves are under constant attack from various sources, like pathogens, insects, and herbivores. If the leaf venation was not interconnected as it is, damage to any vein would result in the death of all the sections. Recent research indicates that the loops in the network allow flow to be routed around any injury to the veins, even in case of damage to the main vein. My colleagues and I believe the efficiency and resilience of leaf venation networks in the presence of damage and under varying loading conditions can provide incredible opportunities to improve the design of engineering networks.  

7. What is your favorite aspect of your research? 

Collaboration with other disciplines like biology and working with graduate and undergraduate students. 

8. What about this type of civil engineering interested you?  

Civil engineering involves different disciplines, and it is more than just buildings and bridges. I found geotechnical engineering to be at the intersection of things that deal with almost everything! Physics, geology, hydrology, chemistry, biology, mechanics, etc. That’s why I love it.

9. You teach undergraduate students too, in addition to your heavy research load. How do you involve students in your work?  

I always encourage my undergraduate students to explore new directions in the field of civil engineering. There are a lot of amazing ideas out there. I always try to include some of these emerging topics in my lectures to the students, so they can realize the importance of these topics and find opportunities. Undergraduates are key elements of my research group, and I’m looking to work with more students in the future.  

10. What's next? 

We are developing a numerical simulation tool in MATLAB which can simulate fluid flow in leaf venation networks. Sometimes these networks include more than millions of veins! My colleagues at UC Berkeley have developed a database of hundreds of leaf venation networks for us to study. We are also use the database to build leaf-life prototypes with high-resolution 3D printers to experimentally measure the behavior of networks under different loading conditions. 

Then, we will assess the resilience of the leaf-like samples by simulating injury to the leaf so we get answers on how the flow is compromised if part of a leaf is damaged and the veins are compromised.  

we will select the most efficient topological characteristics from the leaf venation database, and prototype 3D printed water drainage networks. 

Related content: