Guest post by Hannah Hailan Pang ’16, a part-time student staff writer for the Edgerton Center in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS)

Pick up a copy of Nature or National Geographic, and you are bound to find a selection of fantastic photos. In fact, these journals are known as much for their photography—from cinematic nature shoots to incredible high-speed images—as for their scientific reporting. It’s no small feat to have a photo published in such journals, yet Kyle Hounsell ’13, MNG ’14 has shared a photo credit in both. Hounsell had a hand in photographing the high-speed image of water droplets on a butterfly’s wing for the cover of Nature (November 21, 2013) and inside the May 2014 issue of National Geographic.

Hounsell’s interest in photography began long before he got to MIT, but he discovered his passion for the precision and detail of high-speed imaging at the Edgerton Center, where Assistant Director James W. Bales teaches the popular Strobe Lab (6.163) Project course.

“I like the link between electrical engineering and photography,” Kyle says as he shows me images he took with his Nikon D7000 and a Nikon F5 35mm for the fast flash work. He’s dressed in his usual uniform of black—baseball cap, T-shirt, and shorts, and has the casual, down-to-earth demeanor of a typical MIT student that belies his impressive accomplishments in photography.

While we are discussing the details of technical imaging, instructor and technical photographer Bales steps in. As Hounsell’s closest mentor in photography (and his thesis advisor), Bales isn’t shy about praising his protégé. “Kyle keeps at it until he gets it just right. He’s precise. And happy to drive projects, to try things to make it work.”
Self-portrait, Kyle Hounsell

When Bales jokes about Hounsell’s current all-black fashion scheme, suggesting a wardrobe change for his upcoming graduation from school to industry, Hounsell agrees—and, to the amusement of us all, demonstrates his true familiarity with color by giving some options in RGB hex triplet.

“My own photographs have improved having worked with him,” Bales smiles, “because Kyle is eager to try new setups, angles—bizarre things that we haven’t thought of before. And they can be great and surprising.”

In fact, these wonderful surprises propel Hounsell’s continued passion for photography. He most enjoys nature photography, capturing flora and fauna of the woods of New England. He admires the work of Ansel Adams, Harold “Doc” Edgerton, and J. Kim Vandiver, Edgerton Center director, dean for undergraduate research and a professor of mechanical and ocean engineering. His proudest personal achievement is the photo that appeared in National Geographic: “Life goal achieved.”

Professor Vandiver worked with Doc Edgerton in the 1970s. While working as Doc’s TA, he set up a high-speed color schlieren system at Strobe Alley and, with Edgerton, published many of the resulting photos. Today, Hounsell uses the same setup created by Vandiver and Edgerton to create his schlieren images.

In addition to working as a lab assistant for the strobe class, Hounsell has played a key role in the Center’s K–12 program. He co-designed the electronics curriculum that will be taught this summer to middle school students at 20 i2Camp locations across the US, as well as in Jordan and Kenya.

As Hounsell prepares to pursue a career at Oracle as a hardware engineer, he reflects on his time at MIT, especially the many hours he spent experimenting with photography at the Edgerton Center.

“I got these amazing chances at MIT,” he tells me, “and I wish I did more even earlier in my time here. If you want to do something, put time into it. If you think it’s cool, other people will, too.”

It’s great advice for anyone, especially those of us lucky enough to have so many opportunities at MIT and a few short years to spend here. Whether at the Edgerton Center or elsewhere at MIT, talented staff and students work daily on interesting, novel challenges that have impact. Although Kyle graduated this month, his contributions to the world of high-speed technical photography live on here at Edgerton.

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