Andrea Cassinelli: Shifting gears with unyielding determination

PhD subject area: High fidelity CFD for turbomachinery applications

PhD completion year: 2020

Current position: CFD Development Engineer, Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS Formula One Team

Previous education: MSc Advanced Computational Methods for Aeronautics, Imperial College London | BSc in Aerospace Engineering, Politecnico di Milano

Alumni wisdom: Identify your core values, and align your personal and professional life choices with them every step of the way

Studying at Imperial

Why did you choose to study a PhD within the Department of Aeronautics at Imperial?

Whilst pursuing my Master’s degree at Imperial, I was very interested in exploring research opportunities within the Department. I loved fluid dynamics (and still do) and had been hoping to expand my knowledge in the area, with the dream of making my own small contribution to the field. When an opportunity to work on high-fidelity methods for computational fluid dynamics became available, I just knew it was the project I wanted to take part in. I had even expressed the desire to join my supervisor’s group in my MSc application letter.

What values from your studies have you carried into professional life/your career?

Scientific rigour: any piece of work produced during a research degree that goes through the publishing process must go through many discussions among authors as well as a peer-review process. This promotes a habit of working hard to ensure there is as little left unaddressed as possible. This attitude translates into attention to detail, thoroughness, and striving for excellence when working to deliver any project.

Transparency: because research is meant to be scrutinised and discussed, it is extremely important to be as clear as possible about the true findings in an experiment, or the advantages and limitations of new methodology.

Giving credit where credit is due: the relentless pace at which projects need to be delivered makes it very difficult to achieve things alone, and effective collaboration is key. I think it’s extremely important to make sure that contributions are acknowledged and recognised.

What has been the greatest benefit of achieving your PhD?

Undertaking a doctorate degree has provided me with numerous skills that have since proved valuable in my professional career.

  • PhD students spend several years tackling open-ended scientific problems. I think this helped me develop a more resilient mindset, capable of finding solutions when facing uncertain and difficult challenges, even in times when progress feels very slow.
  • During my PhD, there were often a myriad of potential solutions to the problems I was seeking to solve. This meant it was imperative to develop critical thinking and decision-making skills to avoid wasting time and feeling lost among a variety of possible avenues, many of which would turn out to be dead ends.
  • The length of time spent on a PhD research project calls for the need to develop a self-driven attitude which I believe is a useful skill in the working world – being someone who can take initiative is generally appreciated.
  • I had the opportunity to attend multiple conferences every year with different types of audiences, which helped me develop effective communication skills.

What did you find inspiring at Imperial and why?

When I was a student at Imperial and had the opportunity to speak to professors, I saw that their offices were literally covered in books and papers, with whiteboards full of equations. The vast amount of knowledge they had acquired over the years, the hard work and dedication involved was truly inspiring.

Something that has always fascinated me about other scientists is not being able to even see the boundaries of their expertise and abilities. It made me feel inexperienced but simultaneously motivated me to learn and keep pushing the boundaries of my own understanding. I noted this feeling often when I had meetings with my PhD supervisor, Professor Spencer Sherwin, who has always been an important source of inspiration and motivation.

The facilities on campus also left me impressed so many times – they are truly world-class, and I felt very lucky to have access to them. For my project, this was mostly the supercomputing facilities.

What was the most interesting thing you did, saw or got involved with while at Imperial?

During the second year of my PhD, I was lucky enough to be part of a team responsible for organising an international conference. Unfortunately I could not attend all of it, but I was told by several colleagues that it was a great success. I learned a lot from this experience, such as how projects of this scale need to be managed and coordinated, how large catering events are organised, how conference merchandise come to life, and much more.

Career path and future goals

What are you currently doing and how has your PhD helped you achieve this?

I work in the Aerodynamics Department of the Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS Formula 1 Team. I am a member of the team that develops the CFD technology we use for the aerodynamic development of the race car as well as our Applied Science programmes (primarily the collaboration with INEOS Britannia, working to develop Britain’s challenger for the 37th America’s Cup). I mainly work on our OpenFOAM solver, but I am also involved in most other parts of the CFD process.

I think pursuing a PhD helped me get here in several ways:

  • The opportunity to work on a large software project (Nektar++) introduced me to coding in a collaborative environment and allowed me to understand the importance of good programming practices and standards, whilst improving my C++ coding skills.
  • My project was sponsored by Rolls-Royce, so the research objectives were aimed at addressing practical industrial challenges. Frequent meetings with industry stakeholders often forced me to take a step back and consider the bigger picture as opposed to technical research details, which I always loved to get stuck into. This is an important habit in fast-paced industrial environments where the landscape changes quickly and identifying critical areas and roadblocks makes a big difference.
  • Presenting often at conferences helped me develop the ability to critically synthesise and concisely convey information. This is also particularly useful in a context where everyone is very busy, and it is therefore important to get your message across quickly and accurately.

What has been your greatest achievement/career highlight so far?

It is not easy to identify a single moment, but I can think of two separate occasions that made me feel very proud.

The first was when I gave a presentation at a conference in Brussels, during my PhD. Several of the scientists I had read about in textbooks were present, and the thought that they might be interested in the things I had travelled there to share was a very special feeling of achievement.

The second was being a part of the Mercedes Formula 1 team as we won the 2020 and 2021 World Championships (although I had just joined in 2020!). This was such a memorable experience — the team found ways to make everyone feel part of the celebrations even during the pandemic. For example, just a few weeks after I joined the team, the car raced with a special livery in Abu Dhabi, the last race of the season. It had the names of all team members on it, and seeing my name on TV (even though I had not worked on that extraordinary project at all) was a unique feeling; it showed how much the contributions from all team members added up, and how everyone was essential to achieve and deliver the best results.

What excites you most about your current area of work?

A large portion of my time is spent writing computer code. I think my favourite aspect is being able to discuss and identify a need for a new capability, think about how it can be implemented, design a solution, and then start building it. When I am in the flow hours feel like minutes!

What has your journey been since leaving Imperial?

I left Imperial during the pandemic, while working remotely. I then joined the Mercedes Formula 1 Team and moved to Oxfordshire to be near the factory. I have been working at the team since.

Alumni experience

What makes you proud of being an Imperial Aeronautics alumnus?

Wherever I go, I meet exceptionally clever people who then turn out to have attended Imperial College. It creates an immediate sense of camaraderie, knowing that we have shared the same walk up from South Kensington station many times, avoiding tourists and in a rush to get to a lecture or pick up a research project.

I always feel proud to say I have been part of this institution, and I am sure the talent of the many lecturers, professors, and researchers has had a significant positive impact on me – which in turn has provided many opportunities that may have been difficult to come by otherwise.

Any advice for current PhD students at Imperial?

I think my advice may be useful for those looking to transition to industry after their research experience. I would say, during your research, don’t forget to invest time and effort in developing hard skills. Do not think about your research projects just as something that contributes to building a good CV, but try to get involved in projects that allow you to learn how to do things you like and are passionate about, and solve real-world problems in realistic time frames.

And, for those in STEM subjects: if you like it, I believe that learning how to code is a very valuable investment. I have so far found it to be one of the most useful, appreciated, and transferable skills.

On a personal note

In your opinion, what’s the most important quality you hold that has allowed you to succeed?

I would say determination. If I set out to achieve something, I work hard towards accomplishing it. However, I do believe luck always plays a factor – there are countless extremely bright and talented people, and I believe most people can do most things if placed in the right circumstances.