The industrial mathematics PhD
Unlike more traditional PhD research which explores and develops a central topic in great detail, my PhD is based on a number of smaller collaborative projects of interest to MACSI’s industrial partners. I’ve just entered the third year of my PhD, which places me in an ideal position to reflect on the virtues of this type of PhD and share my experiences with you.
Established in 2006, MACSI has developed extensive contacts with industry. Through discussions with these industrial collaborators, a rich and diverse array of potential research projects is identified. Some projects are more amenable to short consultancy work, but a substantial portion, pose significant scientific and modelling questions. These latter topics are ideal for extensive investigation as part of a PhD thesis. In recent years, a number of MACSI PhD graduates have completed theses composed of two or more connected industry projects, preferably but not necessarily, on similar topics.
The range of expertise available at MACSI invariably means that the right project can be matched with the right individual.
This PhD model is mutually beneficial for the student and the industrial partner. The student is exposed to important and relevant problems from industry, as they arise. The problems are sufficiently rich and complex that they have not been solved by the in-house expertise at the industrial partners and so represent a significant challenge.
The opportunity to experience working with experts from the industrial partners, across different fields of science and engineering, on modelling processes of key importance, cannot be overstated. The industry partner gets to work with an individual who is trained to translate complex processes into mathematical models, and analyse these models based on the key question(s).
During my PhD, I have worked with two industrial collaborators on a number of projects. During the first year of my PhD, I worked with scientists from Philips Research in Eindhoven, on developing models of flow and extraction from coffee beds (e.g. drip filter coffee). This project developed after Philips brought a problem to the ESGI 87 study group in the University of Limerick. Philips had performed extensive experiments on coffee extraction from various types of coffee beds and was interested in developing models to describe the physics of extraction. Leveraging and adapting models commonly used for contaminant transport in groundwater, we developed a model motivated by, and validated against, Philips’ extensive experiments.
In the second year of my PhD, I’ve been working with Vistakon; a Limerick based Johnson & Johnson company. Vistakon is one of the largest manufacturers of contact lenses in the World. My work with Vistakon involves modelling of an important part of the contact lens manufacturing process called hydration. The hydration process cleans the contact lenses by removing unwanted process aids and also hydrates the lenses with water. Similar to the coffee extraction process, the project involves modelling chemical and heat transport. In fact, the equations governing the extraction of unwanted chemicals from a stack of contact lenses are quite similar to those for extraction of coffee from a fixed bed of coffee grains.
In summary, my experience of the industrial mathematics PhD model, recently offered in Ireland by MACSI, is that it is an excellent way of getting experience of working on pertinent, real-world problems from Industry, while also developing the necessary communication and teamwork skills that will be invaluable, whether I decide to pursue a career in academia or in industry post PhD.