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Alumni Profile: Philip Caplan '06

PhD Candidat

It may be hard to imagine a ground transportation system that carries passengers between Montreal and Toronto in less than half an hour, but that’s just what scientists developing Hyperloop technology are hoping to achieve within a few years.

And one of those scientists is Philip Caplan ’06, an LCC grad currently pursuing a PhD in Aerospace, Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In 2015-2016 Philip was part of a 30-member research team at MIT working in conjunction with several other teams around the world to make the Hyperloop a reality. “I did it for fun,” he says of the extracurricular project he and his fellow students got involved in over a year ago — a challenging labour of love that puts them on the ground floor of a revolutionary transportation technology. “I didn’t get course credit or anything for this.”

The brainchild of Tesla chief executive Elon Musk, the Hyperloop system proposes to use low-pressure tubes to move passengers and cargo in pod-like capsules at speeds of up to 760 mph — or about the speed of sound. Prototypes are currently being developed and tested in the southwestern US, where scientists hope to have a line running between Los Angeles and San Francisco by 2019.

“I thought the Hyperloop concept was really awesome,” Philip says. “There are some really interesting technologies. It’s not entirely new; the concept of putting a train through a vacuum was proposed a while ago, but when a new technology comes up, you need people to push it forward. Elon Musk is that guy.”

A Montreal native, Philip grew up in Hampstead and Westmount. “I started at LCC in grade 3, so I’m not quite a ‘lifer,’” he recalls with a chuckle. After graduating in 2006, he studied Pure and Applied Science at Dawson College. From there, he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and pursued an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at McGill University.

It was at McGill that Philip found his true calling, blending his lifelong love of math and physics with computer science. Seizing an opportunity to collaborate on a research project with one of his professors, he began working in the area of computational fluid dynamics (CFD), using math to optimize the shapes of aircraft. “It involved a lot of computer programming,” he says. “I really enjoyed the theoretical and computer science balance; that was when I started to figure out exactly what I wanted to do.”

This experience prompted Philip to enrol for a Master of Science degree in Aerospace, Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering at MIT, where a professor was working in CFD. “The way it works at MIT is that you don’t have to pay tuition; you find a professor you’d like to do research with and they fund your studies.”

Philip no longer works with the Hyperloop team, having undertaken additional responsibilities as a teaching and research assistant. As he works toward completing his doctoral studies, he looks forward to a career in the classroom. “I worked for a year after getting my master’s degree, but I realized I wanted to be in academia,” he says. “I’ve always loved the idea of being a teacher.” Looking back at his days at LCC, he credits his teachers for opening his eyes to subjects that would later form the basis of his academic development, citing former physics teacher Chris Olive and chemistry teacher Marguerite Comley as being especially inspirational.

Having played several sports at LCC, as well as serving as a house head, Philip stresses the importance of high school students trying everything in order to find their passion. “Get involved as much as possible,” he advises. “No one at age 16 or 17 is going to know what they want to do, so do everything that interests you. It’s all about coming out as a well-balanced person.”

This, he adds, is especially true of his colleagues at MIT, most of whom are well-rounded and bring to the table a variety of interests and experiences. “You might think it’s all a bunch of nerds, but it’s not like that at all!”