Case Study: Lessells Engineering Travel Award. Edinburgh – Berkeley

“There is no doubt that the Lessells Travel Scholarship constitutes enormous support for my career and I will continue to reap the benefits from it in the years to come.”

Simon Santamaria, Lessells Scholar, 2017
Simon Santamaria, Golden Gate Bridge, California

Simon Santamaria is a PhD student in Fire Safety Engineering at the University of Edinburgh. Simon’s research focuses on solid fuels and he was awarded a JM Lessells Travel Scholarship to travel to the Combustion and Fire Processes Laboratories, University of California, Berkeley to carry out a  three-months project titled “Improving ignition criteria: analysis of surface heat losses under complex ignition scenarios”.

Experimental Set Up at the University of California
Experimental set-up, University of California
Campus, University of California

Please, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I am a curious and creative engineer with a deep interest in science. I am Venezuelan, born and raised in Caracas. I studied Mechanical Engineering in my home country and worked for a year and a half before earning an Erasmus Mundus scholarship to complete a Masters in Fire Safety Engineering in three Universities across Europe. After finishing, I started my Ph.D. in fire science at the School of Engineering of The University of Edinburgh, where I have been since.

Can you describe your project in no more than 50 words?

For my Ph.D. I study the ignition of solid fuels under complex conditions, with the aims of better understanding the flammability of materials and more accurately predicting fire behaviour and flame spread. At Berkeley, I completed experiments to study the spread of wildfires, focusing on long-range spot ignitions by firebrands.

Did the RSE Lessells Scholarship contribute to the success of your research project? If yes, how did it help?

Yes. During my time at Berkeley, I worked with Prof. Fernandez-Pello who is a renown authority in the field of ignition of solid fuels and flame spread. Working with him and his group gave me useful and relevant insights into my project. Doing experiments with his group, I identified new techniques for instrumentation of combustion and heat transfer processes as well as data analysis and interpretation routines. We also discussed different ways to gather, analyse and interpret the experimental data (including hardware, programming techniques, and statistical methods) which helped us improve our own methodologies. This has increased my productivity, added new areas of interest into my project, provided me with a clearer understanding of the controlling physical mechanisms and even bolstered my desire to excel.

Were there any unexpected outcomes?

Yes. During my time at Berkeley, I participated in many different projects and met many researchers working on areas related to my field. A particularly unexpected and beneficial outcome was the knowledge gained from interactions with the different members of the combustion group. Although, as researchers, both groups aspire to understand fire, their emphasis on solid phase combustion processes meant that discussions lead to new avenues of research that I had not previously considered.

Did you disseminate your findings to your colleagues (at home and abroad) and/or the general public? If so, how?

Yes. One journal publication is currently under review in Fire Safety Journal covering the experimental study on firebrands ignition, in which I contributed in the experimental process as well as the drafting of the manuscript. I also disseminated knowledge gained in seminars (post-doctoral funding opportunities, NATURE’s seminar on writing academic publications, PIXAR’s seminar on visual communication, etc.) and, finally, I’ve discussed with others the data analysis tools and philosophy which I incorporated during my time at Berkeley.

What was your favourite part of your time abroad?

It was the access I had to all the opportunities offered at Berkeley, including researchers with different experience, seminars, talks, and the laboratory. Their expertise in fundamental solid phase combustion processes helped me in addressing many of the remaining issues in my Ph.D. and it has proven very useful in determining the direction of my project. The seminars I attended (ranging from Pixar’s visual communication to Michio Kaku’s future of humanity) kept me engaged in the scientific effort as a need of society. The city of Berkeley and the Bay Area as a whole is a wonderful place to be, filled with innovation and creativity. From the Free Speech Movement of the 1960’s to modern day robots delivering take-out meals, I never stopped learning or enjoying my time there.

What do you plan to do now that the award has finished?

My immediate goal is to finish my Ph.D. I haven’t yet decided what to do afterwards, although I do enjoy research and academia and it is likely that I’ll pursue a career in this field. I will strengthen the relationships I have created through this experience and I will find a way to continue improving.

Would you say that the award was helpful in terms of progressing your career? If so, how?

It is difficult to describe in simple terms the impact of the Lessells scholarship on my career, my professional development, and my research project. Before going to Berkeley, I was going through a difficult process in my Ph.D. in terms of creativity and productivity. Although I was still performing experiments and obtaining important data, I found it hard to understand the “big picture”. The time away at Berkeley helped me break out from some of the routines to free my mind and understand new theories. Having returned, I now realise that the time spent there improved my capacity to adapt. In terms of recognition, having received this award and having spent the time at Berkeley has already opened new doors for me. There is no doubt that the Lessells Travel Scholarship constitutes enormous support for my career and I will continue to reap the benefits from it in the years to come.

Do you have any advice for anyone thinking of applying for RSE Lessells Travel Scholarship?

My advice would be to plan thoroughly but understand that adaptation and flexibility are fundamental for a successful experience. The only way to truly benefit is by remaining open to all opportunities and taking advantage of them as they arise. There is valuable knowledge to be gained by exposing your own techniques and philosophies for discussion, and learning and understanding how different methodologies can apply to your problem. In shorter words, enjoy and have an open mind.

Do you have any other comments that you would like to share?

I would like to express my deep gratitude to the Royal Society of Edinburgh for this award. I am a believer in the power of education and I do understand how hard it must be to allocate resources so that we, as a society, maximise the impact of those resources and the knowledge gained from these opportunities. I can say, with all confidence, that the Lessells Scholarship is a wonderful example of a successful endeavour to do just that, and I am proud to be a recipient.