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Dr Tristan Smith

 Name: Dr Tristan Smith


Age range: 30-35

Research institution: UCL Energy Institute, London

Research career length: 8 years

Research Council: Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)

Location: London, England

Salary: £40-49k

Brief summary of research: Data analysis and modelling of the global shipping industry and its GHG emissions

School qualifications:
A-levels: Physics, Mathematics, Further Mathematics, French, Design

Qualifications post-school:
MEng, MA (CANTAB) in Engineering (Cambridge) MSc, PhD in Naval Architecture (UCL)

Career path:
UK MoD Student Engineer Training Scheme (DESG)
UK MoD Graduate Engineer Training Scheme
UK MoD Sea Technology Group, Engineer
Visiting Researcher UCL Department of Naval Architecture
Research Associate UCL Energy Institute Lecturer UCL Energy Institute

Please give us a description of your job / research, and tell us what inspired you to do what you're doing...

I teach on two of my department's postgraduate courses. We run design projects with teams of students from industry in the department by exploring a concept (like a 60mph speedboat that can turn into a submarine) and I support the students as they develop a design. I also carry out research contracts for the department, which I have to go out and win from industry (hopefully getting them to fund what I want to do to get a PhD ). My parents are both keen sailors and a lot of my childhood was spent on sailing holidays.

By the time I took my GCSEs, I had decided that I wanted to design boats for a living and so picked my A-Levels around that ambition. For my A-Level design project, I designed my second boat; one of the UK's first attempts at kite surfing. But it was about the same time that I realised that to be good at designing boats I needed to have a very broad understanding of all the bits of science and engineering that contribute to their design. So I aimed to study general engineering at university, rather than one of the yacht design courses. In sixth form at school, I applied for and joined a Ministry of Defence (MoD) Sponsorship scheme, which offered me access to their excellent training scheme, which employed me during my gap year and also in my summers during university. Although the engineering of helicopters, tanks and warships is a bit different from yacht design, the training taught me the skills and problem- solving techniques that I now use every day, and so it has proved invaluable.

In the meantime, on my Undergraduate degree course, I specialised in fluid dynamics and spent my 4th year on a project investigating the aerodynamics of power kites for kite surfing (back where I began!) working alongside the company Flexifoil. The MoD then offered to pay for me to study for a postgraduate degree in Naval Architecture, which has given me the detailed, specific technical knowledge I need to design boats. I worked in the Ministry of Defence on a technical specialist job where I helped look after the structures of the UK Navy's surface for a bit. Then I returned to UCL to study towards a PhD in Naval Architecture; so far I have been there for just over a year.

How does your job or research contribute to the world we live in now?

The two research areas I'm involved with at the moment can be linked by their focus on reducing man-made carbon emissions. The first is low carbon shipping. Ships are the unseen workhorses transporting nearly everything that we consume and rely on in modern society from wherever it is mined/grown/made, to the UK. Because of that, global shipping is as big a CO2 emitter as global aviation (though not as routinely treated as an eco-criminal). My research looks at technical/engineering changes that can be used to reduce ship's CO2 emissions, the economic impact of these changes, and also how the changes might be stimulated by the regulation and policy environment in which shipping operates. My second focus is marine renewables. We've been dreaming of free clean energy generated by wind waves and tides. In the last few years, this dream has started to become reality and it's incredibly exciting. However, there is still a lot of work to be done if this is going to become cheap enough for it to displace burning fossil fuels. I look at some of the fundamental engineering challenges that need to be solved to make these technologies viable.

Describe your typical day...

I start the day by putting my life in the hands of the white-van drivers and buses of north London as I negotiate my way through the traffic on my bike. It helps me wake up. At work, I have a shower and then a cup of coffee with some colleagues before settling down to look at emails and writing a list of what I want to do during the day (it never gets completed). I usually then dive into some technical work, because I find it easier to concentrate in the morning. At the moment I am trying to write a computer programme that simulates the motions of a ship in a storm, so I will get on with that for a couple of hours. I start thinking about lunch in the middle of the morning so by 12 I am starving and have persuaded a colleague to go for a walk and get a sandwich with me. After lunch I wander down to the department's workshops to talk to them about our towing tank. I have designed the towing system which enables us to drag models of ships down a 20m long length of water and measure the forces acting on them and I want to see how the assembly is progressing and how many mistakes I made in my drawings.

By the middle of the afternoon, my computer programme has produced some results which I take up to discuss with my supervisor. He makes a load of suggestions of things I need to check to make sure it is physically accurate, and this invariably means a lot more work. Some of our students are currently designing submarines, so I go and talk to them about how they are getting on and discuss the risks with their design and what they need to do to solve any problems. By 5pm, the department is beginning to quieten down a bit and I spend some time concentrating on any problems that came up in my work during the day and what I need to do to solve them, before once again taking to my rusty steed and the mean streets of Camden.

Do you have a 'pet project'?

We currently design ships so that they are strong enough not to fall apart when they are in perfect condition. However, sometimes things go wrong; they collide with each other, they hit bits of coast or bits of their structures fall apart because they are old and tired and badly looked after. Hundreds of big ships (and lives) are lost every year all over the world, usually due to poor operation and maintenance, but sometimes because of poor design. Many of these losses go unnoticed in the developed world because we tend to ignore what goes on at sea. I am trying to develop tools and methods that enable us to react to the problems, once we know something has gone wrong (e.g. a collision has occurred or a big crack has been found) and make a decision about what to do next (rescue the ship/ get everyone in a lifeboat/tow it home). But these tools also highlight what the weaknesses are with our existing designs because they let us simulate what is happening on a ship when it is damaged. As a result, we should be able to develop better designs of more “damage tolerant” ships in the future.

What do you love most about science / engineering or maths?

The way it helps you think about problems from scratch. If you have a broad understanding of science you can break down any complicated problem into a number of processes that you understand reasonably well. This means that you can have a pretty good go at solving a problem without actually being a specialist – like making your car go a bit faster or fixing your plumbing at The thing I love most about my job is the variety: every day is different with another challenge. I love using my brain to solve problems and when you finally get something to work, like a computer programme you have been writing for 3 months, it is really satisfying. But I love the fact that as well as the close technical work I do, I also get involved in ship and submarine design projects. Seeing a design get to a level of maturity where it is properly thought through and balanced is again very satisfying.

What do you remember most from school science?

The thing I remember most are the teachers and our nicknames for them. There was Lofty (he was tall, we lacked imagination), Snellarrr (he was called Dr Snell, though older we were still unimaginative), and Tadge (his initials were TAJ).... Then there was the chemistry teacher whose hydrogen production experiment went wrong, causing the apparatus to be fired up into the ceiling tiles (with the incriminating indentations left behind as a reminder for us all to laugh at). Whilst they might have been sources of great amusement, they were also memorable and fantastic raconteurs of science; bringing illustrations from their earlier careers in research and teaching to entertain us, and sneaking facts into our brains without us noticing that we were supposed to be in a 'boring' science class.

What do you think is the most significant scientific / engineering / mathematical development in the last century?

Well, if you mean 1900 – 2000, then it would have to be the internal combustion engine. Not just because of the revolution it brought with it in the form of versatile / cheap / lightweight power generation from oil (for electricity or transport), but because of its legacy - leaving the developed world with an addiction to luxury private transport and the developing world with an aspiration for the same that will present one of our biggest challenges in securing a sustainable society.

Name one quirky / crazy fact about your job...

No, because then I would have to kill you.

Where I live...

My girlfriend and I have just bought a Victorian flat in North London. It's minutes away from some woods, a disused railway line and Hampstead Heath so it doesn't feel too much like I live in a stinking metropolis, but it's only 15 minutes on my bike to central London.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

It's hard to live in a flat in London and be self-sufficient but I enjoy growing vegetables and working out ways that we can make the house less energy hungry. If it's the summer, we often set off to the south coast in our old VW camper and live like gypsies for the weekend; windsurfing and having BBQs on the beach.

About me


Naval Architecture


Research Assistant

Works for

Ministry of Defence, though currently on secondment at UCL


Proper architecture, art and design, windsurfing, sailing and hills

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.

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