Category: Department of Earth Science and Engineering

No time to take a breath: Managing a project on air pollution during lockdown

Claire Dilliway, Project Manager for INHALE, explains how a study focussing on the air we breathe could continue to run as the world stayed at home

I joined Imperial in December 2019 to manage an EPSRC Grant called INHALE. INHALE aims to study our exposure to and the impact of urban air pollution on our health at multiple scales – from the cellular level, to our organs (particularly respiratory health), and considers the dispersal of air pollution in West London. It brings together an interesting (and jolly nice) and diverse team from Earth Science and Engineering, the National Heart and Lung Institute, Materials Science, the Data Science Institute and our partners at Edinburgh University and at the University of Surrey.

After many fruitful, formative (career-wise) years working in an overseas development-focussed think tank, I was excited to be working again with my original passion; Environmental Science. I was just starting to feel comfortable navigating around campus and knowing where our project staff were when the pandemic hit!

The initial impact will be familiar to many; a shift to working at home, getting the right office equipment, acclimatising to a life dominated by MS Teams as well as (for me, with 2 primary school aged children) a sense of impending doom as it looked increasingly likely that the schools would shut. INHALE was affected in a few broad areas in the early days of the pandemic. Firstly, we had to stop collecting particulate matter from the Secret Gardens near the health centre at Imperial as it was not possible to have staff on site to monitor and maintain the equipment. Secondly, it was not possible to work in the labs where the particulate matter was being imaged and analysed. Finally, we were unable to start the recruitment for the Clinical Trial which had been due to get off the ground in the summer of 2020.

A gif models how air pollution flows around buildings.
The above gif, by Dr Laetitia Mottet models how air pollution flows around buildings.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that we have had a quiet lockdown but in fact there has been a lot going on – thankfully, as I hate being bored! The modelling and data aspects of the project have made great strides, we have been able to start the analysis of the particulate matter thanks to some hard work and favour pulling from colleagues with open facilities, and research staff have been able to take advantage of this time to write papers and plan. As lockdown eased a little in May, more access was possible. We were able to arrange for a network of stationary sensors to be installed around South Kensington Campus to run a very interesting study of pollution levels as the economy started to get moving again which continues to provide valuable data. We were also able to re-start the particle collection around that time too. We are now getting ready to start the Clinical Trial shortly and are actively looking for volunteers who live and work in Kensington and Chelsea and Hammersmith and Fulham.

The pandemic has also presented opportunities for the INHALE team who have a unique set of skills and experience to address some of the many questions which it has presented. We have put in various funding applications including to model the effectiveness of facemasks and the ‘2 metre rule’, and to investigate the spread and potency of airborne COVID-19. Fingers crossed!

Claire Dilliway

Experiences of a remote internship

Read about Earth Science and Engineering PhD student Jemimah-Sandra Samuel’s experience of completing an internship remotely this summer

One of my goals as a student at Imperial College London is to gain relevant industry work experience. Before this summer, my STEM experiences have been in teaching and tutoring roles, although I have always looked forward to applying my skills and experience in an industry setting. So in my previous years at Imperial College, I attended several career fairs both within and outside the university to increase my insight on the job application and recruitment process in the UK. At the end of 2019, I decided to apply for internship opportunities for the summer of 2020, and I was successful in my application to bp. This past summer, I completed a petroleum engineering virtual internship with bp, an experience that has been truly stimulating and rewarding.

Initially the internship was to be held at one of bp’s sites in the UK, but with the turn of events around the world due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a chance that this summer industry experience was not going to come to fruition. Even worse was when bp announced job cuts, as part of their plans to reimagine energy and reinvent bp. On the contrary, all thoughts or fears that the internship could be cancelled were dissipated by the proactive and open responses of bp people and culture team. They kept us up to date at the different phases of the transition to remote working and a virtual internship, even when it was decided that the internship would be shortened. Overall, it was very reassuring to know that bp was continuing with the 2020 summer internship.

In my PhD, I work on reservoir engineering related subjects, so working in a petroleum engineering internship team was a great opportunity to develop petroleum engineering expertise and exposure. I experienced first-hand the fast-paced nature of decision making and implementation of processes in industry in addition to how industry differs from academia with respect to making decisions that maintain the financial bottom line. I got a feel for what it takes to manage one of the world’s supergiant oil fields in the middle east and I added a new petroleum engineering software skill to my technical arsenal, Petroleum Expert’s PROSPER. This is besides other soft skills I picked up during the internship including an agile way of working, working in a diverse team on lots of different fronts, safety in an industry context and specifically to decrease carbon emissions from the upstream hydrocarbon sector. I also took part in training on different topics in the petroleum industry such as net-zero, HC value chain, and personal development on different learning styles, communication and weekly lunch and learn sessions, to mention but a few.

Although the entire internship was virtual, I must say that it did not feel as such. I was part of daily stand up meetings with my immediate team and several other catch-up meetings. bp was indeed inclusive, as I was involved in global and regional asset management meetings from the first week and day, respectively. All the staff I came across were always willing and happy to share their experience and discuss various subjects/topics both technical (for my internship project) and otherwise (company values and goals), including bp CEO, Bernard Looney, and the Upstream Subsurface Lead, Flores Aries.

Arial shot of a forest, with text: Reimagining energy for people and our planet' with bp logo

During the internship, it was very useful to have already been exposed to MS Teams for virtual communication at Imperial. As a PhD student in modelling-based research, I was already working from home through Imperial College’s Remote Desktop Connection, to achieve my research goals. This made it easy to switch to working on the windows virtual desktop that bp provided for interns to work on their internship projects. Furthermore, my participation in the MS Azure AZ course hosted virtually by the Department of Earth Science and Engineering prepared me for using MS Azure virtual desktop (IaaS) during my internship. All these made my technical transition into the virtual internship easy and comfortable.

Having now completed this internship, my appetite has been whetted to take on more responsibility in an industry-based role. I have directly experienced real industry scenarios coupled with my academic experiences, and how being adaptable and flexible are undeniably crucial to being solution-driven in industry roles that are fast-paced and continuously changing in needs. I have now returned to Imperial to complete my PhD with more focus, energy, drive and commitment to making the remaining time count through an agile way of working. And in the next year, I look forward to moving on to work in the industry.

Sampling Sardinia on screen

Students in the third year of Imperial’s Geology course, one of the courses offered by the Department of Earth Sciences and Engineering, usually take part in a field trip to Sardinia. This year, course leaders translated the course to an online environment due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Virtual Sardinia is a new way of learning geology that is accessible to everyone. This virtual field trip lets students wander around and inspect 3D models of real rocks in the game engine Unity. It aims to provide as realistic an experience as possible, since geological field training is intended to prepare students for working in the real world. It nevertheless lets students do more than would be possible in real life, including hovering in the air with rocket packs and exploring abandoned mines. Above all it aims to be fun, because to a geologist, fieldwork is geology fun.

Virtual view of a rocky beach
The beautiful beach at Torre del Porticciollo

Emilia Dobb, a student on the course, tells us more:

Despite a lot of students feeling disappointed that they couldn’t travel to Sardinia on a field trip, I was very excited that the trip had become virtual. I have a disability which means I can’t normally attend fieldwork, so the experience has been extra special for me.

The virtual fieldwork has been amazing so far. Our lecturers have put so much effort into making the trip fun and immersive. They have developed an app for us to explore 3D outcrops, and accommodated them with high-resolution photographs, 3D images of rock samples and even incorporated a virtual microscope which we can use to analyse the rocks through thin sections.

The trip has consisted of taught fieldwork in the morning and self-fieldwork in the afternoon. This means students in Asia can participate in the taught sessions too and do their self-fieldwork in the morning before the next guided fieldwork starts. Along with the use of the app, Google Earth has supplemented our learning and allows for good field observations from photos that already exist on there. Ironically with virtual fieldwork we have been able to study some localities that we normally wouldn’t have been able to if we’d have actually gone to Sardinia, as they’re too dangerous on the roadside. Following the fieldwork at the different localities, Dr Matthew Genge then summarises the observations and interpretations we’ve made, just like he would in the field, but over Microsoft Teams instead.

This is the first fieldwork I have been able to attend since fresher’s week in my first year, and I’ve loved every minute of it. I feel like I’ve learnt so much, and it’s been great to be able to apply what I have learnt in lectures to real-life examples in the field – which is exactly what fieldwork is about, but normally I wouldn’t get that opportunity.

A virtual grassy hill top
The view from the top of a volcano
A virutal view of a dark mine shaft
Mapping the abandoned Argentiera silver mine.

The app has been pretty fun to navigate. We have an AI demonstrator for the fieldwork in the app called GeeDee (Geology demonstrator), who has quite the attitude. I’ve grown quite fond of her and find myself talking to her when she gets in my way or disappears out of view…this is what happens during lockdown! We can walk around the outcrop as we would in the field and can even drop a field notebook to get a sense of scale, and use a compass-clino for dip and dip direction measurements. There are glowing spots on the outcrop which give us more information, such as the photographs and 3D rock samples. So far, we’ve driven quads around huge quarries (which I tend to crash and get stuck!) and used a jet pack to fly above a volcano to look at its shape, as well as to fly back onto the clifftop when we’ve fallen off! We’ve encountered goats, snakes and sharks too!

I’d like to say a huge thank you to our lecturers for putting this incredible experience together for us all. They’ve really made the best of an unfortunate situation.

To find out more about our undergraduate courses in Earth Science and Engineering, visit the Study website.