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Up, down and all around

One MIT senior traveled the planet’s most remote areas before landing at the Institute, where he now works on engineering better thermoelectric devices.
Ian McKay
Ian McKay
Photo: Allegra Boverman

Plenty of students take a year off between high school and college. Very few of them spend it staving off frostbite and carrying wooden boards across a continent most people will never see.

Yet Antarctica — along with other latitudinal extremes such as Greenland and Siberia — was a stop on senior Ian McKay’s circuitous journey to MIT, where he’ll receive his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering this month. Upon graduating high school, McKay, a native of Seattle, says he was less concerned with attending college than with “exploding out into the world.”

“I was really, really obsessed with living the exact kind of book that I would want to read someday,” he says.

An avid ski racer, McKay had heard legendary tales of fellow skiers who had traversed the snowy continent. He spent his savings on a ticket to Denver, where the annual job fair for the U.S. Antarctic Program is held. Having read up on employment needs and conditions in the extreme south, he convinced recruiters to give him a position as a construction worker.

McKay’s job was to build and maintain research centers in Antarctica, where the climate is too harsh to keep year-round stations everywhere scientists would like to conduct geologic or oceanic investigations.

“Every summer they take eager people like me and throw them out on planes into various places across the continent and have them build these temporary science camps,” McKay explains. “In the austral summer, a lot of [research] will get done, and then they’ll clean it all up at the end of the year.

“It was cool because I came into science from the side of supporting science,” McKay adds, though he concedes that after six months schlepping materials across vast ice sheets, he decided college might be a good idea after all. “I realized construction work was much less comfortable than sitting at a desk, thinking about interesting things.”

He started at Dartmouth College, returning to the polar regions to work during his summers, before spending a semester at Novosibirsk State University in central Russia. McKay, who’d studied a bit of Russian and had childhood friends who spoke the language, says that while taking classes in the notoriously difficult Slavic tongue was a challenge, he had plenty of opportunity to practice.

“If you go anywhere in Russia, you’re going to be on a train for several days in a small compartment with a bunch of Russians who are really curious about your life,” McKay says. “It can’t be anything other than immersive.”

Eventually, though, McKay decided that he’d like to return to the United States to study engineering. He transferred to the Institute in spring 2010.

“[MIT] is the strongest place in the world to pick up science right where it gets interesting — right on the border of science and technology,” he says.

McKay wasted no time immersing himself in research. Last summer, he received a Peter J. Eloranta Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship to pursue a design for what he believes is one of the world’s smallest anemometers, devices to measure wind speed.

“I had been interested in the anemometer question because [in Antarctica] I had personally been required to climb tall towers in minus 40-degree weather and chip the ice off these things so they started spinning again,” McKay recalls.

Typical anemometers that use cup-like spokes or rotary blades are difficult to manufacture in miniature, and may not be accurate at that size since “nature just doesn’t work that way at really small scales,” McKay says. His design relies on aeroelastic flutter — the force that governs the flapping of flags — by using a three-millimeter-long strip of mylar and a laser that can infer the wind speed based on how fast the strip is flapping. McKay says his anemometer’s size makes it potentially convenient for use in 3-D arrays to measure differences in wind speed across a surface, or in very small air ducts and other tight spaces.

Another of McKay’s current research projects involves improving the efficiency of devices that derive their energy from heat. McKay has figured out a way to induce stabilized intermittent heat transfer between a thermal source and whatever it’s powering — “where you transfer a certain amount of heat and then stop and gather more, then transfer that heat and stop again,” he says — to improve the conversion rate of the system. One device for which such a method might be useful is a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, which works by encasing a small nugget of radioactive material in an engine that turns thermal energy into electricity. (Since the heat comes from radiation and not the sun, this method is used to power space probes traveling to distant places where solar power is unavailable.)

“In preliminary experiments I’ve been able to significantly increase the energy-conversion efficiency of a contained heat source,” he says.

It’s probably no surprise that outside the lab, McKay enjoys activities such as rock climbing and kite skiing, a relatively new sport in which an athlete uses the pull of a kite to glide along snowfields on skis.

“You go out and it’s flat white as far as you can possibly see. You hold on to this thing and if you point it too far up you will actually launch off the Earth,” McKay says.

After receiving his SB, McKay hopes to pursue a mechanical engineering PhD in the lab of associate professor Evelyn Wang, continuing his work on thermal-fluid device design. Despite his nomadic tendencies, McKay says he looks forward to spending another several years at the Institute: “I haven’t been able to bite off the whole MIT experience — that’s a lot to cram in four years, not to mention two. What’s amazing here is you can have a cool interesting idea and go talk to a professor about it, and all of a sudden you have your lab and helpers and it’s becoming real.”

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