From Concorde to Covent Garden

From a dusty runway in Kent to the Royal Opera House, Head of the Department of Engineering Professor Dame Ann Dowling finds echoes of engineering in some unexpected places. At first sight there is little obvious connection between opera – which, along with walking, Debrett’s lists under Professor Dame Ann Dowling’s recreations – and Concorde. That’s because the connection, at least for Dowling, lies not in sight but in sound. Acoustics, especially aircraft noise, is one of Professor Dowling’s longest standing academic interests, an interest she traces to a holiday job at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough during her undergraduate degree in Applied Mathematics. According to Dowling: “Farnborough was where I became interested in aircraft noise, and it influenced my decision about what to focus on during my PhD.” Her PhD was related to Concorde and the noise of its turbo jet engines during high-speed flight. As she was finishing her PhD, Professor Dowling had the opportunity to cross the Atlantic on Concorde. “It was a great thrill,” she remembers, but not her most memorable Concorde experience. That came several years later when, having gained her private pilot’s licence, she and her husband Dr Tom Hynes – a fellow researcher in the Engineering Department at Cambridge – were preparing to land their plane at Manston Airport, Kent. “Concorde was arriving back after a pleasure flight and we had to hold at about 1,000 feet above the end of the runway while it landed underneath us. As it came in, we could see in the dust that it skimmed up the special vortices formed over Concorde’s delta-shaped wings that it uses to get its lift. It was beautiful, one of those perfect moments, with Concorde beneath us and the sea on one side,” she says.

 

How things work

It’s a recollection that helps reveal the curiosity and creativity Dowling displayed as a child, and which encouraged her into engineering. Despite the fact her father was an engineer, she traces her love for the subject to the simple childhood desire of discovering how things work. “I’ve always been interested in how things work. At the age of six I took my bicycle apart to see what things were like inside, but I couldn’t get it back together. There were ball bearings all over the place,” she says. “I also had a very inspirational science teacher when I was nine or ten. The lessons were very hands on – playing with magnets and electricity – but he was great at relating that to the everyday, which made me not only want to understand how things work but also wonder how you might design things better.” One of Dowling’s greatest opportunities to “design things better” came in 2003 as one of the leaders of the Silent Aircraft Initiative (SAI). A major research programme and part of the Cambridge MIT Institute, the SAI challenged researchers to design an aircraft that on take off and landing could not be heard above the normal background noise outside an urban airport perimeter. “It was a huge opportunity in terms of aircraft noise,” she says. “Usually people say: ‘Here’s the aircraft, now make it quieter.’ But in this project we started the other way round.” By the end of the project the SAI had not only met its noise target but also designed an aircraft that would consume 25 per cent less fuel than the newest aircraft of similar size, and its hybrid wing design now forms part of American space agency NASA’s 2020-2030 technology plans. The creative, collaborative aspect of engineering exemplified by the SAI is, Dowling believes, partly why the subject appeals to women, albeit still not in large enough numbers. “Engineering is very open-ended and very creative,” she says, “and it involves communication and team work; you hardly ever do anything on your own. It’s about bringing together a team with different areas of expertise to do something collaboratively that you can’t do individually.” While women make up 14 per cent of engineering undergraduates in the UK, the figure at Cambridge is 25 per cent, a difference Dowling attributes to the course structure. “Nationally the numbers are disappointing,” she acknowledges. “But in Cambridge the recruitment of women into engineering is way ahead of the national average. There are things about our course that women particularly like: we don’t ask people to choose their specialisation at the time they start – they come and do general engineering for two years and that gives them time to decide what really interests them.” By giving women time to decide how to specialise, the course compensates for the fact that many women lack earlier exposure to engineering and, Dowling says: “Women are often interested in interdisciplinary areas, so this breadth is quite attractive.” It is a degree of flexibility that benefits all engineering students, male as well as female, which is crucial given the current shortage of engineers. “About 600,000 new engineers will be required by UK industry over the next seven years. Industry is crying out for engineers. While there has been a slow growth in the numbers applying to do engineering, and our application numbers are increasing ahead of the national average, the challenge remains getting enough applicants nationally.” That is why the department invests time and money running hands-on engineering events for local schools and community groups. “We have an outreach coordinator who does a fantastic job and our undergraduates are great ambassadors,” says Dowling. “The important thing is to show just how creative designing and building things can be. Sometimes people think it’s a rather routine activity, but engineering is really about innovative ideas creating or improving physical products or devices.” While outreach work continues, since taking over as head of department in October 2009, Professor Dowling has made collaboration the priority. Reflecting this, the department’s new research strategy comprises four main themes: energy, transport and urban infrastructure; engineering for life sciences and healthcare; risk, uncertainty and resilience; and future manufacturing.

 

More collaboration

“One thing I really want to encourage is more collaboration, getting academics to work together on really big challenges, initially by getting teams together, first from within the department, and then working with other University departments such as the science departments and the Cambridge Judge Business School.” Her rationale for this collaborative, integrated approach is pragmatic. “In the current climate it’s more important than ever to join up what people are doing. This collaborative approach helps access large-scale research funding and produce results that really make a difference. It’s about achieving a critical mass. To make a difference on green energy, for example, you need to pull lots of people together around a big, high profile collaboration that can really change how people think, rather than working on several small projects.” If getting people singing from thesame song sheet underpins Dowling’s new strategy for the Department of Engineering, it also resonates with her love of opera: “The thing that fascinates me most is the power of the human voice. I wonder if it’s partly my background in acoustics, but when you hear an opera house filled by one person’s voice without amplification, I just think that is tremendous – but a choir singing together is even more powerful.”

Article taken from Newsletter February/March 2011

This is an archived news story, first posted in 2011.

News item posted Sunday, 3rd May 2015

  • Profile - Professor Dame Ann Dowling. Photograph by Philip Mynott
  • Profile - Professor Dame Ann Dowling. Photograph by Philip Mynott