Applying research to real-world questions
Ulster University’s research PhD programmes are widely recognised for their value to industry and society
Ulster University: “We are trying to engage the private-sector community on the value of PhDs and what they can do for business.”
A PhD from Ulster University offers significant benefits to the individuals involved as well as to industry and society. Dr Adrian Johnston completed his PhD in computational intelligence, machine learning and AI in 2007 and has continued to collaborate with the university in a number of areas since then.
He joined Seagate Technology in Derry in 2000 as a graduate electronics engineer and started his part-time PhD with the support of the company the following year. “There was an intelligent systems lab in the college and I found that very exciting,” he recalls. “It was researching things like robotics and AI. It was called computational intelligence at the time. As soon as I started in Seagate, I began thinking about its applications for the company.”
Seagate was engaged in business excellence and advanced manufacturing programmes at the time and Dr Johnston saw a clear link between the two. In particular, he was interested in how AI could be applied in an industrial setting.
“I have kept up my engagement with Ulster University research and have mentored PhD students ever since. Having access to the university’s Cognitive Analytics Research Laboratory (CARL) has helped us stay abreast of advances in AI and machine learning. The teams here and in Minneapolis are using machine learning in daily business practice. The collaborative research between us and Ulster over the past 11 years has benefited me and the company. It has also enabled me to progress through the management team.”
The technology has a wide range of applications in Seagate. “We use it to automate lots of processes. Decision-making becomes more efficient when they are based on data analytics. We can augment the intelligence of engineers with algorithms and take away repetitive tasks. This allows engineers to focus on more valuable work. We can also use it in products. We can use data to predict the future performance of materials in products. We are using it in a number of areas to make our products even better.”
Dr Johnston says it is extremely important for companies like Seagate to be able to work with an institution like Ulster University. “They help us see into the future – that’s very important for our technology roadmaps two, three or four years out. I would very much recommend a PhD in Ulster to others. In fact, engineers in the US are talking about doing long-distance PhDs with Ulster.”
Environment and development consultant Dr Tara Shine gained an undergraduate degree in environmental science from Ulster University before starting work on her masters in Mauritania. “It was on wetlands in West Africa – in the middle of the desert,” she says. “Even on the very edge of the Sahara you find puddles. It’s typically Irish to study that but wetlands are very important to nomadic herding communities, migrant birds, grazing animals, medicinal plants and so on.”
[CROSSHEAD]Proposing a masters thesis[/CROSSHEAD]
She wrote to Ulster University proposing a masters thesis on the project. “I sent an aerogram letter to Ulster and they said yes. I collected so much data it quickly became evident that it was going to become a PhD.”
After two years of data collection, Dr Shine moved back to Coleraine in 2000, where she worked as a teaching assistant while writing up her PhD thesis.
“Lots of people with PhDs want to work in academia. No offence to anyone but I quickly realised I didn’t want to be an academic. I wanted to go into the real work and work on policy change.”
Since qualifying, she has worked for a variety of organisations including the Department of Foreign Affairs during Ireland’s presidency of the EU in 2004 and the Mary Robinson Foundation.
Today, she’s a consultant, giving advice to a diverse range of clients including the OECD and the EPA. She is a co-founder of the Change by Degrees social enterprise, which aims to change the conversation on sustainability, empower people to make different choices and enable all actors in society to play their part.
“As place to train, Ulster was great,” she says. “The teaching style is very good, and they offer great help and advice when you need it. The skills you learn in areas like research and writing sticks with you forever. The PhD has served me so well and it has been great to be able to apply it to address real-world questions.”
And the university has taken steps to improve the PhD experience still further. “The new vice-chancellor decided to create a Doctoral College to cater for the needs of all PhD researchers in the college about a year ago,” says Prof Marie Murphy, dean of postgraduate research and director of the Doctoral College. “This offers greater consistency of experience and is in line with international best practice. The aim is to help us recruit the highest-calibre PhD researchers.”
Another aim is to ensure that PhD candidates become part of the university’s vibrant research community. “They are not students, they are part of the research community and they are the lifeblood of research at the university. We want to give them excellent research training and help them graduate within appropriate timescales and go on to be good ambassadors for the university. Overall, we try to make sure they have a consistently good experience.
“It’s going very well,” Prof Murphy adds. “Every year, we have 130 fully funded PhDs along with self-funded and industry-funded PhDs coming through. We are trying to engage the private-sector community on the value of PhDs and what they can do for business.”