Alumni profile - Dr Ernest Odhiambo
The pandemic has also spurred innovation in me. As I write this, I am in the middle of preparing for a presentation of a Ventilator which we have designed and made from scratch using local materials together with a team of 7 colleagues from the departments of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering at the University of Nairobi.
Why did you study Mechanical Engineering at Queen Mary? My rural home is known for sugar cane farming. Despite the obvious potential for the economic empowerment of the local community, they were still having to contend with a lack of electrical lighting (power) in their homes. I thought, what if we could use the remains of crushed sugarcane to efficiently produce electricity through combustion and gasification? That would better the lives of the rural folk. So from the outset I knew that studying Mechanical Engineering was a vital step towards achieving my dream for helping boost the electrical power supply in my rural area.
What aspects of your degree did you find most enjoyable? What modules did you like learning about and was there anything that surprised you in your studies? I enjoyed the fact that my supervisor was quite accessible and always ready to respond to my queries. The student community was quite friendly as well and this no doubt increased my morale, given that I was far from home. I really liked the Computational Modelling Module (CFD). It was my first time interacting with this modelling approach and this interest has stayed with me to date. Overall, coming from a relatively poorer nation, I was surprised by the wealth of resources (library/software/lab) available to me. These resources made it easier for me to do my research work and made my studies even more enjoyable.
Why did you choose to study at Queen Mary in particular? I always wanted to study in London. I had thought of Imperial College and Kings College as well, but the fruitful engagement I had with members of staff I talked to really swayed my choice towards Queen Mary.
Can you describe your career path up to date and touch on your current role? After Queen Mary I came back to my home country of Kenya and started a job as a tutorial fellow at the University of Nairobi. Four years later I travelled to Taiwan to pursue my Ph.D. degree, which I attained in 2016. I returned to Kenya in the same year and am currently a lecturer at the University of Nairobi, where I have introduced CFD in the academic curriculum. I am also involved in CFD consulting in the Building Services Industry, mainly focusing on computational modelling of fire driven-flows.
How has your work been affected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and how have you had to adapt? The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has negatively affected my work somewhat but there are positives worth mentioning too. The fact that I am not able to directly engage with my students due to the lockdown has not helped in my delivery of knowledge to them. However, the lockdown has also provided an opportunity for me to sharpen my online teaching skills and I am now able to produce video lectures.
The pandemic has also spurred innovation in me. As I write this, I am in the middle of preparing for a presentation of a Ventilator which we have designed and made from scratch using local materials together with a team of 7 colleagues from the departments of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering at the University of Nairobi. The presentation will be made to our Vice Chancellor and then to local media.* The key novelty of the Ventilator is the fact that it is battery powered (portable), so it can be used in rural areas which are yet to tap into the electricity distribution network. Being portable, the Ventilator can also be used in ambulances. Currently we are using abandoned parts like disused car wiper motors to drive the ambu bag actuator. It costs about 2500 pound sterling to produce one Ventilator. Our aim is to supply at least one Ventilator to a rural clinic in each of the 47 counties. We would appreciate any partners who wish to join us in this noble venture. I can be reached via email at: email@example.com
How did your time and study at Queen Mary help your career and development? There is no doubt in my mind the impact that my study at Queen Mary has had on my career path. From the outset I sought to learn more about electricity generation using renewable energy options like remains of crushed sugar cane. I have since applied the knowledge I accrued at our local Sugar Cane Crushing firm (Sony Sugar Company, Awendo, Kenya). Incidentally this exercise was funded by the Royal Academy of Engineers (RAE), UK (2018/19), through a programme dubbed “Interaction of Universities with Industry”. My task was to computationally model and enhance the factory boiler, by proposing a more convenient location for the economiser whose retrofitting in the 80’s, is thought to have drastically reduced the thermal efficiency. The new retrofit location is set to increase both the thermal and electrical generation efficiency. At this point I have to mention Queen Mary’s Professor Chris Lawn, who patiently guided me through boiler principles. I also benefitted from a book on combustion, which he published.
As mentioned earlier, I also do private consultancy for the building industry, specifically in the computational modelling of smoke propagation for fire safety. At Queen Mary I was introduced to OpenFOAM (an open source software for computational modelling of fluid flow), and I use this software in my modelling work and have also introduced it to my students.
Is there any advice you would give to current students or recent graduates considering their career options? I would advise students to identify their passions in Engineering (or other fields) early on and to pursue these with a lot of focus. It may take time to finally appreciate the benefits one gets by studying a degree, but for sure it is worth the while.
What was so special about your time at Queen Mary? Having such a dedicated supervisor in Professor Chris Lawn made my stay in the UK quite enjoyable. The friends I met from different parts of the globe definitely contributed to my own personal growth not just academically but socially as well. Queen Mary was to me like a home away from home. I would gladly go back if it were possible to roll back the years. GOD bless you all at Queen Mary.
*Since this profile was written, the official launch of the Ventilator, presided over by the vice Chancellor University of Nairobi, took place on Monday 11th May 2020.