An Unexpected Loss Spurs Jamal Yagoobi to Complete Student’s Unfinished Dissertation
When WPI graduate student Michal Talmor Tilley died suddenly of a medical condition in 2021, she left behind grieving loved ones and an unfinished project—her dissertation.
Jamal Yagoobi, her PhD advisor and the George I. Alden Professor in the Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, decided he would not let her research into electrohydrodynamics (UHD) go unrecognized.
“I had known her since 2013, and I felt responsible for her work,” Yagoobi said. “There was no question that I would do this. I wanted her work to be in the scientific literature under her name.”
Now it is. In May 2022, Yagoobi presented Talmor Tilley’s dissertation, “Study of Small Scale EHD Driven Flow Distribution Control and Understanding of the Effect of Temperature on EHD Conduction Pumping Performance,” and WPI posthumously awarded her a PhD in Mechanical Engineering.
The 132-page dissertation shines light on a critical aspect of research in Yagoobi’s lab—the role that temperature plays in a process used to cool down electronics. The dissertation also includes poignant tributes from current and former graduate students who worked alongside Talmor Tilley in Yagoobi’s lab and recalled her as intelligent, kind, funny, helpful, and passionate about science.
“The knowledge she imparted on me will remain with me for the rest of my life, and I am forever grateful for the time I was able to spend working with her,” graduate student Nathaniel O’Connor wrote.
To finish Talmor Tilley’s work, Yagoobi first turned to her laptop computer, only to find that she had encrypted her research data and dissertation drafts, rendering them inaccessible. Yagoobi then dug into years of drafts and data he had stored while advising Talmor Tilley, articles they co-authored in scientific journals, and a recording of a video call he had held with her before she died.
“In the end, I made very few changes to what she had written,” Yagoobi said.
Talmor Tilley, who went by the name Michelle, was a native of Israel who loved puzzles as a child and taught herself English by watching Star Trek on television. She arrived at WPI for undergraduate studies in 2009 with her cat, Chicha, and graduated in 2013 with a BS in Aerospace Engineering and Robotics Engineering. She continued her graduate studies at WPI, was awarded a NASA fellowship, married Alex Tilley ’12, and became a United States citizen. In 2016, Aviation Week named her to its Twenty20s list of students making a difference through academics, research, and engagement with the world.
During the final year of her PhD work, Talmor Tilley left WPI to work for Aurora Flight Sciences. She was 35 when she died.
An experiment in Yagoobi’s lab is expected to fly into space in the future with a logo that Talmor Tilley designed. Her family hopes to visit WPI in the future for the dedication of a plaque in Talmor Tilley’s honor, Yagoobi said. Meanwhile, Yagoobi has sent them a copy of her completed dissertation.
"Michal had a dream since her childhood,” her parents, Ron and Shoshana Talmor of Israel, said in an email. “She left her homeland to accomplish her dream at WPI. She will remain in our memory and hearts, talented and young forever. Fly, Michal, with your dream to space."