Name: Dr Prashant Valluri
Research institution: Institute for Materials and Processes, School of Engineering, University of Edinburgh
Research career length: 14 years
Research Council: Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)
Location: Edinburgh, Scotland
Brief summary of research: My work deals with understanding fluid flows that are everywhere around us: atmosphere, our body and industry.
A-levels: Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, English and Electronics
Bachelor of Technology in Chemical Engineering atTechnological University, Lonere, India
PhD in Chemical Engineering, Imperial College London, UK
Research Officer, Unilever Research India
PhD Candidate, Imperial College London
Post Doctoral Research Associate, Imperial College London
Lecturer at Institute for Materials and Processes, School of Engineering, The University of Edinburgh
Please give us a description of your job / research, and tell us what inspired you to do what you're doing...
I am one of the newest academics in the UK. I joined as a Lecturer in Chemical Engineering at the University of Edinburgh in Oct 2009 after postdoctoral research and doctoral studies at Imperial College London. My research centres on understanding complex flows encountered in critical issues of the day using mathematical modelling. Primarily these are difficult and diverse problems in the energy (e.g. flows in long-distance oil-gas pipelines and refinery distillation columns), environment (e.g. flows in process plants and concerning water treatment) and health (e.g. blood flows in arteries, enzyme interactions and tumour development) sectors. For example, understanding blood flow in arteries will enable us to identify any stagnation regions, which is indicative of possible sites for plaque deposition. I use advanced mathematical and computational tools to critically understand the flow behaviour in these complex systems. This is possible nowadays because of the availability of powerful computational resources like grid computing.
I am passionate about science and engineering, and really regard fluid mechanics more as an infectious hobby (that also happens to fund my life) than a job! During my interactions with students so far, I discovered a notion of fluid mechanics being a form of a "tough & abstract mathematical sign language" - which, I think, begins from an underlying fear of mathematics. I must admit I feared maths too when I was at school but that fear gradually ebbed away when my parents (both from an evidently mathematical background) asked me to regard maths as nothing more than a language. This was actually a turning point when I started perceiving the beautiful reality of equations (I know I am sounding terribly cheesy now - sorry!), which finally converged to a deep interest in fluid mechanics and transport phenomena during my Undergraduate studies back in India. This is also when I realised that understanding fluid behaviour is paramount to both industry and also the human body - the proverbial pin dropped when I ‘realised' that blood flows. This led me to take up research in flows and processing as my first job at Unilever Research (India) which ultimately drove me to go for doctoral studies and post-doctoral research at Imperial College London. I was immensely impressed with the jobs of my PhD supervisors - constantly surrounded by tonnes of keen students/post-docs victoriously battling challenging research using cool and new ideas. This instilled a burning desire in me to emulate them and experience the joys and freedom that academic research offers! And after a series of interviews, persistence paid off and finally, I managed getting into this coveted University as an academic - the interview was the most nerve-racking one I ever had!
How does your job or research contribute to the world we live in now...
A fundamental understanding of flows in complex industrial and biological problems (described above) will offer us great opportunities to come up with potent and long term solutions - thereby inevitably improving the quality of our lives. For example, some of my group's recent work on cleaning processes in industry enables better management of our water and energy resources. This would ultimately have an impact on the cost of common goods we rely so much on like pharmaceuticals, food products and cosmetics, while ensuring that their environmental footprint is kept to the minimum.
Describe your typical day...
My day is interspersed with research and teaching, sport and music! My usual work day begins early with a quick breakfast at around 7am. After which I have a brisk walk down to my Institute, being fortunate enough to live in a leafy part of Edinburgh, very close to the University. I catch up quickly on the latest news through the newspapers online. I use my morning hours for my research. I check up on my latest results of my simulations and I briefly analyse them for any improvements or plan for any additional runs. I do some literature survey to check for new papers in my research area. I also check up on my PhD student who has just started. We have a nice ‘heart-to-heart' chat about any scientific issues he is facing, or we want to challenge ourselves to.
Afternoons are usually calendared for collaborative meetings, seminars etc. If none of these is on agenda, my research continues on till evening, when usually I have something planned along with friends, colleagues or family. I am a member of the JogScotland group and I join a hearty jog training programme at lunch times. I am planning to re-start my music classes soon, to keep myself entertained in the evenings, otherwise it's a game of cricket! I love bowling - but I do get hit for a six or a four on an occasional wayward ball - which means I must keep to my line and length always! Term time is usually when teaching responsibilities gain precedence. As I haven't yet experienced the full blown teaching load - this paragraph is bound to change when duties start kicking in from October this year! But currently, I am handling laboratory and design-project duties, so I allocate some time for preparing lecture material in my typical working day. I also spend some time checking for latest teaching techniques to make fluid mechanics more interesting.
My beautiful wife also gets a lot of attention during the day. She is a fellow scientist; she makes nanomaterials at Cambridge University. Our weekends are usually dedicated to each other! I simply love my job - it gives me freedom to think and challenge myself and of course the enviable academic freedom, which I thoroughly enjoy after having had a stint in industry!
Do you have a 'pet project'?
Oh this is a tough question to answer. But two things have recently caught my eye - 1) how do liquids evaporate or boil? It's such a common phenomenon we see every day, but it is not technically well understood! A good understanding of this will help us cool our computers better and save us a lot of energy and £££s! And, 2) how do solids behave in moving liquids - say ash particles in moving air - as seen from the recent Icelandic volcano? This is again so common, but poorly understood. If we better our knowledge, our prediction systems would be more accurate, and would help the airlines re-route efficiently.
What do you love most about science / engineering or maths?
I love how ten numbers and a collection of symbols operating between them rule our lives - without us noticing them! Science and engineering provide mathematics with the language to perform. Our lives have transformed due to this very aspect since the very beginning of human civilisation. The pyramids, well-planned cities of Indus valley and Mesopotamian civilisations, the latest of Olympic stadia for London 2012, the latest medical and energy technologies are all a result of the synergies between maths and science/engineering!
What do you remember most from school science?
My chemistry teacher who showed us a colourful chemical volcano! But she was really strict and scary at times!!
What do you think is the most significant scientific / engineering / mathematical development in the last century?
I can't choose one, sorry! Vaccinations, antibiotics, semiconductor technology, the Turing machine, and harnessing energy from nuclear, renewable or fossil resources. And all of their successes include intrinsic working of fluids!
Name one quirky / crazy fact about your job...
Most of our internal and external environment is fluid - whether it's the human body (approx 75%), earth (approx 75%) and of course, the atmosphere around us!
Where I live...
Currently renting a nice flat in leafy South Edinburgh, close by the hills that I go to with my running group, and close to the Institute where I work. A quiet area too to relax and unwind after a good and hard day of work!
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I love reading popular science and history. Currently I am reading Bad Science by Ben Goldacre - fascinating! I am a wildlife enthusiast. I will soon join a local nature group and discover if there is a wild side to my new surroundings! I will also be joining a music class to continue learning classical Indian Carnatic music (vocal). And of course, spending quality time with my wife!
University of Edinburgh
Reading, wildlife, music, spending time with my family
This career case study originally appeared on the NOISE (New Outlooks in Science & Engineering) webpage on the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) website. NOISE is a UK-wide initiative to promote science and engineering. Originally funded by EPSRC, NOISE is now an independent platform for early career researchers to engage with the general public about the importance of research and inspire your people to consider STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) careers.