SOUE News Issue 5

Head of Department's Report to SOUE    2005 - 2006

Richard Darton


The Guardian 2006 University Guide confirmed this department as the best place in the UK to study general engineering, reversing last year's narrow preference for Cambridge. In both years Oxford was rated best University overall. Some six hundred undergraduates are reading Engineering Science and associated joint courses, a huge increase from the 170-175 who were in residence in the early 1960s, when the Thom building was opened. Total undergraduate numbers are holding up well (and quality - out of 152 candidates sitting prelims for the first time in June 2006, 75 were awarded distinctions). However the number electing to read Engineering and Computer Science has fallen to single figures, and the decision has been taken reluctantly to cease admissions for ECS in 2007. We believe that our new biomedical paper will prove popular with undergraduates, but we have initiated a course review to ensure that our whole teaching programme remains competitive, attractive and relevant for our outstanding and motivated student body.

Around 230 postgraduates are registered for higher degrees in the Department. Most of these will complete a thesis for a DPhil, but we are now preparing for a new venture: in October 2006 we will be joined by the first graduate students taking an MSc in biomedical engineering. In a few years' time we will be taking 30 graduates each year into this exciting new programme. Our research portfolio remains healthy - work in progress is currently valued at £37.4 million, an increase of 7% above last year. The topics under investigation cover a huge spread of interests from bird strike in jet engines, to growing human cartilage.


The December SET for Britain event at the House of Commons was again a triumph for Oxford Engineering Science and our research students. Dan Walker, an EPSRC CASE student (with Shell) won both the BP Younger Engineer's Prize and the 2005 Gold Medal (supported by ExxonMobil) for his research on Interaction of Extreme Ocean Waves with Offshore Structures. Michael Schwertner won a Rolls-Royce prize for his work on adaptive optics, and Nicholas Hughes won a Vodafone prize for Information Engineering for the assessment of Drug Safety. Dan Walker subsequently netted another prize for his work, the IStructE first prize for young researchers, as did Nick Hughes who was a joint winner of the IEE 2005 JA Lodge award, for his analysis of ECG signals. Charles Bibby (Worcester) was awarded the IMechE Mechatronics Student of the Year Award in 2005 for his excellent 4th year project on tracking targets at sea. Joel Evans (Magdalen) and Sarah Series (Somerville) won RAEng 2006 Leadership awards.

Katherine Clough, a 4th year student at St Edmund Hall, won the 2005/6 Higher Education Academy Engineering Subject Centre Student first prize for her essay on How does your experience of your course compare with any expectations you may have had? Her perceptive answer can be found on the web. Another prize-winning essayist was graduate student Sarah Bond for An Incredible Journey in the 10th Oxfordshire science writing competition.

Other recipients of honours include Professor David Hills who was awarded an RAEng/Leverhulme Senior Research Fellowship for 2005/6, and Professor Sir Mike Brady who was awarded an honorary degree by Oxford Brookes University. Professor Lionel Tarassenko won a Royal Academy of Engineering silver medal for his innovational work in signal processing. This medal recognises an outstanding personal contribution to British engineering that has led to market exploitation. Also awarded a silver medal was Professor Andrew Blake, who was a lecturer in this department between 1987 and 1999, prior to his move to Microsoft Research in Cambridge, and is now one of our Visiting Professors. Dr Andrew Fitzgibbon, until 2005 a Royal Society Fellow and now a Visiting Fellow in the Department, won one of the two 2006 Roger Needham awards of the British Computer Society - the other winner was Tim Berners-Lee (an Oxford physics graduate), inventor of the world wide web. The head of department gave the 2005 Hartley lecture at the Royal Society, on Sustainability Metrics (webcast available at RS site).

The work of Dr Malcolm McCulloch's group in developing an electric power train for a novel eco-car was recognised by the newspapers, including the Sun which used the headline "Jack's real gas guzzler" with a picture of Jack the teenage driver and his "pocket rocket". Elsewhere numerous staff and graduate students won prizes for best conference and journal publications, showing that the Department's high quality research also receives serious peer recognition.

In the Recognition of Distinction Exercise 2005-6 the title of Professor was conferred on Dr Paul Buckley, Dr Fionn Dunne, Dr Steve Elston, Dr Alex Korsunsky, Dr Richard Stone, Dr Paul Taylor, and the title of Reader was conferred on Dr Rene Banares-Alcantara, Dr Dominic O'Brien, Dr Ian Reid, Dr Yiannis Ventikos, and Dr Amy Zavatsky.

Academic Staff Movements

At the end of the last academic year, two staff members who will be remembered by many generations of students retired - Professor Gill Sills and Dr Gordon Lord. Gill was replaced at St Catherine's College by another civil engineer, Dr Byron Byrne, and Gordon at LMH by Dr Nick Hankins, a chemical engineer. Other University Lecturer appointments were Dr Paul Newman at New College, whose research is in robotics, and Dr Mark Thompson who will augment the tutorial team at Wadham. Mark's research focus is in orthopaedic biomechanics, and his appointment is part of our expansion in the general area of biomedical engineering.

Two new Departmental Lecturers were appointed - Dr Antonis Papachristodoulou in control engineering, and Dr Suby Bhattacharya in civil engineering. Dr Clive Siviour was awarded a Career Development Fellowship in Impact Engineering, in association with St Hilda's.

Alan Cocks took up his post as Professor of Materials Engineering in January 2006, and Professor Phillip Ligrani arrived from the University of Utah in June to fill the Donald Schultz chair in Turbomachinery. Andrew Zisserman was appointed to the Microsoft Research-Royal Academy of Engineering Professorship in Computer Vision Engineering.


The new Information Engineering Building which adds considerably to the grace and splendour of our end of the Banbury Road, was given an award by the Oxford Preservation Trust, which recognises projects that preserve or enhance this historic city.

Our next major building project is the Institute of Biomedical Engineering, part of the Old Road Medical Campus development at Headington, on which construction started in March 2006. There was considerable pressure on space in this building, so we reduced our requirement to 2000 m2. Completion is expected in October 2007, following which several research groups will start to work there, in close contact with various clinical colleagues.

The University gave us conditional approval to establish a new Engineering research laboratory in the Axis Point building on the Osney Mead industrial estate. This building is owned by the University, but currently let to external tenants, and would make an ideal facility for large-scale experimentation, particularly the research that we do for Rolls-Royce in the UTC for Aerodynamics and Heat Transfer. We are currently planning this intricate project, which would involve relocating research from the old Southwell building, and which will cost several million pounds.

Plans to modernise and refurbish the Thom Building feature in our long-term strategy. The building has been heavily used for 43 years now, and is showing signs of middle age - blemished exterior, over-heating in summer, and utilities not functioning as they once did.

Development and fund-raising

Last year I reported the appointment of a Director and fund-raisers for the Institute of Biomedical Engineering. Donations and pledges from the Bellhouse Foundation now totalling £1.3 million have funded these positions and some other activity, and are also enabling us to appoint a Bellhouse Foundation Lecturer in Biomedical Engineering (drug delivery).

In June we signed a headline-making deal with Technikos, a Sloane-Robinson company, to exchange 50% of the University's rights to licensing and spin-out income in biomedical engineering, in return for an injection of £12 million into the project. We have also been fortunate in securing an award of £1 million from the Wolfson Foundation towards the new building. Taken together, these sums enable us to cover our building costs, and to progress the establishment of some extra new posts in biomedical engineering.

A number of other projects are also under development, related to water research and energy research. I hope to be able to report more fully on these activities next year.

Last year I commented on the need to raise funds for graduate scholarships, and despite some indications of support, the difficulty of finding funding for brilliant graduate students remains.

We have been successful in raising funds to finance the developments that are essential if we are to keep our position as a leading teaching and research department in Engineering Science. To have freedom to develop new activity we must also balance our operating budget, which we have done for more than ten years. The University's budget however has been under pressure, and the proposed settlement for 2006/7, which attempts to rectify underspending in some other areas, is disastrous for physical and life sciences. Although since 2002/3 the University has received a 28% increase in income from HEFCE, net formula funds (income less central charges) available to the division have decreased by 18% over this period. Most science departments, including Engineering Science, now face large deficits. The discussion about the budget continues, and we hope that these difficulties can be resolved without damage to our strategy of growth and innovation.

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