Faculty of Engineering: Case Studies

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Dr Minna Karstunen

Reader, Civil Engineering

I joined Strathclyde in 2007, and was promoted to a Reader in 2007. In 2008, I was offered a Chair in Geomechanics at TU Delft, NL, but decided to stay at Strathclyde inspired by our strategy. I am the Leader of our Infrastructure Research Group and the course leader for MSc in Geotechnics, a joint MSc with the University of Glasgow that I set up in collaboration with local industry.

I got my Master’s in Civil Engineering at Helsinki University Technology (HUT) in 1991, and worked for a few years in industry before applying for funding to finance my PhD studies at the University of Wales Swansea. Swansea is an international centre of excellence in numerical modelling. Through perseverance, I managed to get full funding for my PhD, including the overseas fees, from the Academy of Finland (Finnish research council), and some private foundations. All through my PhD, I continued collaborating with my former colleagues in Helsinki, and as a consequence had a number of publications, most of which were unrelated to my PhD. For this reason alone I was offered a Lectureship at the University of Glasgow in 1996 in the third year of my PhD.  I had a very clear idea that I wanted to pursue soft soil research, even though no one else in the UK seemed interested in the topic at the time.

 My PhD in Swansea was done as a part of ALERT Geomaterials Research Training network (see http://alert.epfl.ch/), which was funded by the EC under FP3. The annual ALERT doctoral school and workshop, which is held in Aussois, French Alps, allowed me to network with leading academics in my field. My PhD funding included a generous travel grant, so that I was able to attend international conferences and such, and this, in combination with ALERT gave me fantastic connections in my field. This turned out to be invaluable, when my first EPSRC grant was turned down as “too ambitious”. I submitted a similar application as a network coordinator for a Research Training Network on “Soft Soil Modelling for Engineering Practice”, funded by EC/FP5 (see http://scmep.civil.gla.ac.uk/), with a total value of euro 0.96M, involving 5 European universities and never looked back. I was appointed as a Visiting Professor at HUT in 1999, and that enabled me to get funding as a PI from the Academy of Finland. This funding, which has been continuous since then, and the access to lab facilities at HUT enabled me to create unique datasets involving specialist testing of soft natural soil samples, which my team used is developing advanced soil models are to become the industry standard. SCMEP was followed by AMGISS Marie Curie RTN (see http://www.ce.strath.ac.uk/amgiss/), funded by FP6 and the most recent EC network project that I am coordinating is an FP7 Industry-Academia Partnerships and Pathways project GEO-INSTALL (see http://geo-install.co.uk).

My motivation for coordinating EC networks is to offer our PhD students and post-docs similar international networking opportunities that I had during my early career. My hint to any aspiring young academics is to get involved with Marie Curie activities, and other international linkages, if anyway possible, as in academia you international contacts are an absolute necessity. Coordination means that I need to be able to handle sometimes very difficult people, and have insight into rather complex legal contracts, with frequent meetings with Research and Knowledge Exchange Services, Finance Office and Human Resources. As a female in a male-dominated area, I also need to tolerate a number of patronising senior male academics, which I sometimes find difficult as an independent Finnish female. However, when you are in charge of millions, you need be very firm: your collaborators and colleagues need to deliver what they have been contracted to do, and as the coordinator it is my responsibility to ensure that things happen, and that they happen in an auditable way, benefitting Strathclyde.

Dr Yonghao Zhang

Senior Lecturer, Mechanical Engineering

I obtained BEng and MEng in Mechanical Engineering from Chinese universities in 1992 and 1995. I had worked in industry in Shanghai China as a mechanical engineer for 3 years before I started my PhD study at the University of Aberdeen in 1998. However, I did not envisage an academic career at that time. After I obtained my PhD in Mechanical Engineering, I worked as a Research Scientist and then Senior Research Scientist in the Computational Science and Engineering Department at STFC Daresbury Laboratory. Although I enjoyed research work at Daresbury Laboratory, it did not allow me the opportunity to set up a small microfluidic lab. In addition, I wanted to enjoy academic freedom in developing my research interests. Therefore, I joined the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Strathclyde in 2007, as a John Anderson Research Lecturer, and was promoted to Senior Lecturer in 2009. My current research is focused on understanding fluid dynamics in micro/nano-fluidic devices.

I like being an academic as it is intellectually challenging with freedom to carry out curiosity-driven research, which is very different from working in industry and government laboratories. It is very satisfying that I can constantly interact with peers and smart students. Meanwhile, I dislike spending too much time on networking and writing research proposals and prefer to conduct the actual ‘hands-on’ research work itself.

The generally useful skills, I think, are written and oral communication skills, and project and people management skills.  My hard lesson is that I was not persistent enough in my early career in pursuing my research goals. Of course, my time spent in industry helped me to realise my true interest, and I also learned how to prioritise tasks and deliver them before deadlines. My advice to any early career researcher who wants to have a long term research career is to make sure that you have reflected on how your passion for research fits with possible career options – and once decided you can pursue with vigour!