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UCL Mechanical Engineering's Head of Department talks about all-nighters, caffeine immunity, and fearlessness.
Yiannis Ventikos is the Kennedy Professor of Mechanical Engineering and the Head of UCL Mechanical Engineering. He moved to UCL from Oxford where he was a Professor of Engineering Science and a Fellow at Wadham College, since December 2003. Before that, he has worked or studied in Greece, France, the USA and Switzerland.
Prof Ventikos’ research focuses on transport phenomena and fluid mechanics, as they are applied to biomedical engineering problems, energy, innovative industrial processes and bio-complexity.
In this interview he talks about life, study patterns, the existential challenge of space, immunity to caffeine but most importantly, the limitless potential of UCL Mechanical Engineering.
Tell me about your early years
I was born in Athens. Long before the boom period and the crisis. Pretty much typical middle class family, my mother was a teacher. She was very motivated to academic success. She made sure that my brother and I abided by her wishes. In my fourth year, I had my mother as my teacher; a rather intense period for a ten year old I have to say!
In high school you were the kind of student that the teachers would say…
“He’s a smart guy but he doesn’t really apply himself”. This persisted until my penultimate year; I took the last two years very seriously, I applied myself and I converted from average to really very good and my exams were among the best in the school.
I studied like crazy those years, there were a lot of all-nighters. One side effect of this is that I think I am immune to coffee now because I used to consume so much. Now coffee does nothing to me. I can drink three double espressos in an evening and sleep like a log.
What made you want to study engineering?
The reason I converted to the sciences and engineering was the influence of my uncle who was a mathematician. He was a very eccentric person but a very committed scientist. I remember him introducing me to science and explaining things like how rain worked, how a hovercraft worked, giving me simple mathematical problems and it got me hooked.
What were you like during the university years?
In the first couple of years it was Physics, Physics, Mathematics, Mathematics, Mathematics, Physics, Physics. I appreciate now how important it is to have those foundations but as an aspiring engineer of 19 you really want something more tangible and we got this more tangible stuff in the third year in a class that had to do with ship hydrostatics. I got hooked again basically. I knew that I wanted to do something in the area of fluid mechanics.
What professional achievements give you the most pride?
In reality I am more proud of people than I am of achievements. I think academia is a very special branch of human life, the way society is organised. Something that is inherently built in to academia is this need to always do better.
Every generation has to be better and be more productive and more engaged and more creative than the previous one. So I’m very proud when people I have been involved with, graduates, post docs and so on ,go on and do great things and make a great name for themselves surpassing their supervisors.
What about working as UCL Mechanical Engineering’s HoD appealed to you?
I wanted to see whether I can develop systems and a culture which is one that I as an academic, as a professor, would be happy to work in. That’s the challenge.
When this opportunity came along, given the reputation of UCL, the potential I saw this place has, both the department and the university, I thought this could be a platform where I can test this idea.
What personal qualities do you possess which allows you to think you’ll succeed?
I’m optimistic, I have a very positive “can-do” attitude. I think this is my greatest asset. When people ask me “Can we do that?” my immediate answer is “Yes we can and if we can’t do it immediately, let’s find a way that we can make this happen.”
It’s good to strategise, it’s good to see the obstacles in the way but it’s the issue of disposition. Do you approach it from the angle “we’ll make this happen and lets see what is the process to make it happen” or do you approach it from the angle “hey this is very difficult, all the obstacles let’s not even try”. I’m very much of the first persuasion.
What are the obstacles?
In this department and UCL as a whole, the greatest obstacle is space. People say we’ve identified the challenges, we’ve identified the problem and most people would say that space, estates, is the top problem. Saying we’ve ranked the problems and we’ve identified that space is the top priority is like ranking spherical objects and concluding that Jupiter is bigger than a tennis ball.
It’s a HUGE problem that inhibits the ambition, does not allow us to become what we could and should be. It’s as simple as that. Ideas shape the environment of course, but it is also true that the environment shapes thinking.
Everybody across UCL must work together in order to make that happen. It is encouraging that the new Provost has identified that as an important issue that needs to be dealt with.
What ambitions do you have for the department in terms of what it can achieve and how it compares to others?
There is no reason for a department like this not to be among the best in the world. The intellectual capacity is here, the attraction of top people is here, the success stories that you need to build upon are there and in place, the history and the great scientific and educational accomplishments are there, so it is a case of putting the pieces of the puzzle in the right order to unleash the potential. The ambition for the department is limitless.
So, what does success look like?
Success to me is peer recognition. It doesn’t help a lot to say that you are very good, others must say that you are very good. I want Mechanical Engineering departments around the world to know and respect us, to know the work we are doing, to admire our scientific output, to make our students desired professionally around the world. Most of that is already there, we just need to capitalise and go all the way.
What are the key features of that desirable environment you describe?
Very high quality and very high quantity research productivity is number one. We want to be a department where we excel in research and everybody in the department excels in research. A department where there are no barriers effectively so that communication in every direction is easy and natural. A department that is not constantly constrained regarding resources. Resources means many things in this context, it means space, but it also means time. Something I have observed over the years is that the time to think and the time to do the very high quality, long term visionary work cannot be short-changed.
UCL is a world class institution, how can it still improve?
Is it number one in the world?
That’s how it can improve.
So how would it get there?
By doing more of what we do well and by improving the things that we don’t do well. It means that we need to publish more papers, in better journals. For UCL as a whole, we should get Nobel Prizes. It means that we should get more grants. It means that what we produce finds its way in practice and society benefits from that. It means that our infrastructure gets better. Pursuit of excellence is the very first in the overarching objectives and principles that UCL goes by.
When you are not being head of department at UCL, what are you doing?
It is a very consuming job but I am a chauffeur for two young ladies with massive social lives. Parties, concerts, sleepovers. It is a full time job for my wife Joanna and I looking after Marina and Natalia.
If you had not been an academic, what alternative career would you have chosen, and why?
I would like to be a ski instructor but I understand that this is probably inappropriate. I snowboard. I am not great at it but I am fearless.
Any favourite films?
I like cinema a lot. My all-time favourite film though is ‘Groundhog Day’. It presents the very best and interesting aspects of life, brought together in a very nice story. It is not just philosophical, it is fun to watch.
What is on your MP3 player?
John Barleycorn Must Die. I like 50’s, 60’s and 70’s rock and roll, the blues and I like Jazz.
UCL’s engineering faculty is becoming more integrated in its approach to teaching, does this challenge the identity of the department?
No, it is not a challenge, it is an opportunity.
I believe deeply in Mechanical Engineering. There are very few areas that you cannot venture to from Mechanical Engineering. You can do naval, biomedical, controls, aerospace, energy. We are so much at the centre of everything worldwide that there is absolutely no challenge, only great things to achieve. It is a great opportunity to showcase what we do and who we are to a wider audience. We are going to be able to tell the story and inspire our students from the first year about what Mechanical Engineering is and why engineers have been changing the world over the last two million years and will continue to do so.