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SCI Seligman Travel Bursary Report - Marilyn Rayner

22 August 2005

The 2005 Seligman travel bursary funded my trip to the UK to visit academic and research institutions in the area of chemical and food engineering as well as to participate in the 7th World Congress on Chemical Engineering in Glasgow. This trip could not have come at a better time for my professional development. I defended my doctoral thesis in February and like so many of my recently graduated colleagues had been applying for industrial jobs and writing grant applications under fierce competition. With this in mind I had set out to make contacts for applying for a postdoc position or possibly a research fellowship in the UK.  When I left Sweden the last of June, the temporary project I was working in at the University of Lund had just finished, and my future seemed uncertain. Then a stroke of luck; while visiting friends in St Albans I checked my email and was overjoyed – I had been selected for a post-doctoral fellow position at Lund. This meant that instead of looking for potential employers, I could seek collaborators, international contacts, get some career advice as a person just starting out in an academic field, as well as inspiration for my future teaching and research.

Career Advice and Professional Development

During my SCI arranged visits I had detailed discussions with members of the academic staff surrounding innovation and technology transfer, the challenges facing Food Engineering as a profession and academic institutions in this field. In addition, I received a bounty of sound career advice with respect to writing successful grant applications, managing innovation, and the challenges I will face as a researcher and teacher in Food Engineering. Other important topics were how to maintain my position by developing expertise and furthering science in my area, ways to develop technologies and intellectual property, how to deal with industry, retaining control of the scientific agenda by not splitting myself between too many projects, and keeping to core competencies by learning to say no to certain projects. It is apparently a challenge to balance industrial based and scientific based research as both are dependent on the other.

My professional development was also fostered by this trip through the inspiration I found listening to the talks and discussing with researchers at 7th World Congress on Chemical Engineering, making contacts for future collaborations, gaining insight into education and research in the UK, and increasing my resolve that Food Engineering is a current and relevant topic.

Visits

  • Prof Joe Quarini, Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Bristol, 4 July 2005
  • Prof Keshavan Niranjan, Food and Bioprocessing Sciences, University of Reading, 5 July 2005
  • Dr Ian Wilson, Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Cambridge, 6 July 2005
  • Dr Andrew Stapley, Department of Chemical Engineering, Loughborough University, 8 July 2005
  • RG Holdich, Micropore Technologies Ltd, Loughborough, 8 July 2005
  • 7th World Congress on Chemical Engineering, Glasgow, 10-14 July 2005

 

Innovation and Technology Transfer

My first visit was with Prof Joe Quarini at Bristol University on 4 July. He showed me his ‘ice pig’ for cleaning pipes and heat exchangers. It is an invention based on nature, the erosive power of a glacier that acts both as a solid and flows at the same time. I saw in a video how a plug of crushed ice could be forced through a process line recovering up to 90% of the product with virtually no mixing despite passing through a 12:1 constriction, a U-turn bend and another 1:12 orifice. I was entranced with all the possibilities this could have for the food industry, imagining cleaning out a yoghurt line between flavour runs with some ice instead of a time consuming rinse and cleaning process.

With almost evangelical enthusiasm Joe explained how this could be used to clean things from civic wastewater pipes to remove plague from arteries. But there is a catch.  Who will develop the new infrastructure to provide and maintain this technology? How would you guarantee systems? I was told a large international process equipment company spent 60 man days studying this innovation but in the end were not prepared to take the risk. I was surprised that something this smart was not immediately snapped up, so Joe explains ‘Many great ideas never come to the market because there needs to be in place the supporting technologies. Industries and consumers do not want ideas, they want solutions. The car, for example, no one decided that they wanted an internal combustion engine, but rather the fulfilment of a need that the automobile as a whole provided.’

I then asked what advice he would give me if I, as a researcher at a University, had an idea and wanted to commercialize it. He replied, ‘Trying to bring an innovation to the market is a soul destroying endeavour and it would be best to stick to what my peers seem as sensible. Funding is difficult to get for truly innovative ideas; it is best focus on incremental improvements where you can get approval from your peers.’ He adds, that although Bristol has a good innovation office, successful company spin-outs are not necessarily for the university to make money, but rather to fulfil political needs; to show that they are relevant to the policy makers. This at first seemed to be a rather dark view of technology transfer, but suppose you are the first person to buy a fax machine – who are you going to send a message to? This is the current fate of the ice pig. Despite this, Joe is busy working on the next innovation, the variable volume heat exchanger.

Challenges facing Food Engineering – industrial, professional and academic

On 5 July, I met with Prof Keshavan Niranjan at Reading University. After touring Reading’s extensive pilot hall and seeing the impressive range of food processing and unit-operation equipment, we talked extensively about Food Engineering as an academic discipline and the challenges facing food engineers in the UK, these being mainly public perception and University funding/infrastructure. Here I learned that the food industry and consequently food engineering has a surprisingly bad reputation in the UK. Prof Niranjan described this perception as: ‘people believe that the food industries are in the business of profiting from ruining people’s health.’ This is mainly due to recent heavily publicised food scares such as, among others, mad-cow, foot and mouth, and Sudan 1.

On 6 July, I met with Dr Ian Wilson at Cambridge University who expressed similar views on the food industry’s reputation, but also points out that the BSE situation was driven by non-enforcement of regulations because the government had done away with veterinarians at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Likewise, foot and mouth was a problem caused by government cutbacks but gives the entire food industry a bad name.

According to Dr Wilson, the real challenge is that the food industry in the UK is not science led or technology driven, but rather dominated by an oligopoly of retailers struggling to cover processing costs. This has caused an erosion of the scientific base at companies leading to outsourcing projects to Universities. This may seem like an opportunity for greater research funding, however 6 months is the maximum project planning horizon. This shifts the Universities work away from basic research and long term development to short term product development which is not an effective use of the expertise or is it the university’s central mandate. Prof Niranjan expressed similar concerns about the possible changing role of engineering research at Universities: ‘Engineers must be of service to society, but must also fight to prove their scientific relevance per se and not allow themselves to become just a service function. If you want to be an academic in the field of Food Engineering you must constantly fight to survive, learn how to talk the language of management and politicians, and find a balance between curiosity-based versus consumer-based research.’

From my conversations with Dr Martin Pitt at Sheffield University, Howard J Tomas at Armfield Ltd, and Dr Andrew Stapley at Loughborough University, I learned that there has been a considerable decrease in applicants for chemical engineering programs in the UK, and in some instances there is an overcapacity. This is partly due to a decrease in interest in maths and sciences in lower grades, and changing attitude towards engineering and technology. The prestige of engineering in general as a profession has eroded, which is being seen as a ‘dirty, difficult and dangerous’ job, leading to lower numbers of applicants to the chemical engineering programs. This sentiment was expressed by almost all of the educators I spoke with during my visits and seems to be a Europe-wide phenomenon, with the exception of France and to a certain degree Spain, where in France engineers are held in high esteem. This was a surprise to me. While in Sweden I had thought that the lack status in the engineering profession there was caused by the general Swedish tendencies that everyone should be ‘lagom i.e. not think that you are something special.

Coming originally from Canada and obtaining my undergraduate education in engineering at the University of Guelph, it was always felt the being an engineer was something to be proud of i.e. parents would brag that their son or daughter is studying to become an engineer like they would if they were a medical doctor or lawyer. This positive opinion I believe is due to strong professional organisations that have close links to students through junior branch organisations, as well as the legal responsibility licensed engineers shoulder. According to Roland Andersson, director of the Chemical Institute of Canada, chemical engineering education is expanding in Canada and still is considered a highly attractive career. The declining status of engineers in Europe was in fact a surprise to me and I think that it is one of the important topics being considered by the European federation of Chemical Engineering’s Working Party on Education as well as by other professional organisations.

The competitive climate at Universities seems to have hardened in the UK as they have in Sweden, and from what I understand most of the EU as well. From what I have been told about the UK, there was a large increase in the number of universities (polytechnics were upgraded) which seemed to increase the competition for grants and a thinning out of resources at the University level. There has been a similar phenomenon in Sweden where more and more of the community colleges are granted University status.

In the UK however, at the same time there has been introduced a series of rating systems, audits, and performance based funding. This quality assurance is of course important, but in a situation where time and funds for teachers is more limited than ever, it may produce the opposite effect. It could actually reduce the quality of teaching and research as professors are overburdened with audits and administration. This had also led to a growth in the University’s infrastructure; this trend was described as ‘funds are being taken away from the point of service (students and research) and being absorbed by layers of management.’  Many who I interviewed felt that the erosion of base funding to Universities meant that researchers are spending more and more time hunting for grants and less time doing research.

At the same time, the competition for grants is increasing and the criteria changing. When I asked for grant writing advice, Prof Niranjan explained that ‘the difficult part about writing grant applications is one has to be upbeat, more entrepreneurial or sales than objective science.’ From my conservations with academics much of their energy is spent on administration and trying to predict and adapt to a fickle political climate. These discussions were very insightful as I can see similar developments in Sweden and will most likely face similar challenges.

Collaboration and Inspiration

Many of the talks given at 7th World Congress on Chemical Engineering in Glasgow were very interesting.  However, the one that I found particularly inspiring was the Seligman Lecture given by Prof José Aguilera from Chile. His talk titled ‘Food Materials Science, Building the Right Structures’ concerned many aspects of food engineering including my own area of expertise, membrane emulsification, about which he stated this was ‘how emulsions should be made.’ In membrane emulsification processes, emulsion droplets are created by extruding the dispersed phase (e.g. oil) through a micro-porous membrane into a continuous phase. This differs from conventional emulsification where larger droplets are broken into smaller ones due to mechanical energy (such as mixing or high-pressure homogenisation). It was really encouraging to hear a prominent food engineer refer to one’s research topic in a positive light.

The previous evening, I also had the pleasure to have dinner with Prof Aguilera, Andrew Ladds (General Secretary of SCI), and Prof Niranjan, during which we had interesting discussions about SCI, innovations in food engineering research, and international cuisine. Furthermore, I had the good fortune to meet several other membrane emulsification researchers at the 7th World Congress on Chemical Engineering including Dr Kobayashi from Japan (I have read many of his papers), Jens Hoppe from Aachen in Germany, and Dr Laura Silva from Velocys Ltd in the USA, who gave an interesting talk on their micro-reactors. Fostering international contacts, especially in a relatively small field such as membrane emulsification, is essential for my advancement in this field.

During my visit to Loughborough to visit Dr Andrew Stapley, I saw a poster hanging in the hall on slot shaped membranes. This was a similar membrane material to the ones I modelled in my doctoral thesis project. Upon telling this to Dr Stapley, he arranged for me to have a quick chat with the author of the poster, Dr Richard Holdich. It turned out that his group were also using these membranes for emulsion formation and were interested in my modelling approach. Dr Holdich had in fact referenced one of my articles in his latest publication. I was unaware of their group since they had not published in the Journals I have access to. Since returning to Sweden, I have kept in contact and we plan to collaborate on a project as well as potentially submitting an EU application. This has been a huge and unexpected windfall of my UK visit.

Concluding Remarks

This trip has been a great benefit to my future career and an exceptional and enjoyable experience. I hope the contacts made and colleagues gained will result in fruitful collaborations. I am deeply grateful to SCI and the 2005 Seligman Travel Bursary, and in particular Monica Iglesias for arranging and funding my visit to the Universities of Reading, Bristol, Loughborough and Cambridge, as well as the 7th World Congress on Chemical Engineering. I also thank Prof Niranjan, Prof Quarini, Dr Wilson, and Dr Stapley who took their time to show me around and share their experience and expertise.

Dr Marilyn Rayner
Lund University

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