Industrial case-studies with the InFoMM CDT

I am in my second year of study with the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Industrially Focused Mathematical Modelling (InFoMM). In this program, we undertake a year of training in cutting-edge mathematical techniques and learn about many aspects of industry, before choosing and working on our DPhil in years two to four.

A highlight of my first year was working on mathematical modelling and scientific computing case studies, where we solved a series of past study group problems. Some examples were modelling the eye to explain experimental results to reduce cataracts, or solving a complex advection-reaction-diffusion system numerically using finite elements. This was the first time I saw how maths could be used to tackle real-world problems, and I discovered that maths doesn’t have to be ground-breaking to be an extremely useful tool: a simple model can still give great insight!

InFoMM’s case-study training culminated in March at the UK Graduate Modelling Camp in Oxford (www.maths.ox.ac.uk/r/infommgradcamp). This acted as a warm-up week for the ESGI in Durham, following the same format but with academics bringing problems rather than industry. A group of us worked with Donald Schwendeman to model a desulfurization tank and predict how long gas would take to move through the chamber, in order to optimize the process. It was fantastic to be able to work with students and academics from other universities, each bringing a fresh and different way of looking at the problem, as well as their own set of skills.

In April, I was able to put these new skills to the test at the European Study Group with Industry (ESGI, http://www.esgi.org.uk/) in Durham. A selection of intriguing problems were brought forward by external companies, ranging from optimizing the assessment process for emerging technologies to predicting the spread of a noxious gas in a train station. I worked on the problem brought by Syngenta, to model the concentration of pesticide in the soil. Their expensive software was giving a surprising result in which the concentration of pesticide at a particular depth would oscillate, rather than rise and fall once. By modelling the concentration with a simple advection-diffusion reaction, we were able to replicate the behaviour of the complicated, black-box software. Further, we discovered that the pattern produced was caused by oscillations in the water level due to absorption by plant roots – an insight that was definitely not obvious from the software! I relished the opportunity to engage with academics on an equal footing, outside of the classroom, with each person’s contributions being treated equally, and look forward to many more Study Groups over the coming years.

I have now completed my first year with InFoMM and have started my DPhil project, carrying out more in-depth research into a company challenge. I look forward to solving this industrial challenge (modelling batteries to increase their lifetime) using the innovative mathematics I learned in my first year and I’m hopeful that this experience will provide me with the tools to become a great researcher in the future, be it in academia or industry. – Valentin Sulzer

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