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ICE Awards 2019: how an interest in fluid mechanics earned this engineer a Gold Medal

16 October 2019

A passion for mentoring researchers is just one of the reasons why Professor Alistair Borthwick was recognised for his contribution to civil engineering at this year’s ICE Awards.

ICE Awards 2019: how an interest in fluid mechanics earned this engineer a Gold Medal
Professor Alistair Borthwick (third from the right) holding his award

My choice to become a civil engineer was partly driven by advice from my maternal grandmother, a graduate of University College Cork in 1915, who held civil engineering in the highest esteem.

I’m grateful for her excellent advice. My experience of civil engineering is of a career that’s been invariably fascinating – requiring ingenuity, creativity, teamwork, and common sense.

Student life

As an undergraduate in the late 1970s, I was inspired by my lecturers. During the summers I was employed by the South West Water Authority. The work was varied and interesting, and included surveying a water treatment plant at HM Prison Dartmoor, monitoring effluent at a sewage treatment works in Plymouth, and helping design a water transfer project during the drought of 1976.

From 1978 to 1982, I investigated fluid flow past a cylinder – a topic relevant to loading on offshore structures, many of which were then under construction for the North Sea.

After completing my doctorate, I worked for Brown & Root (UK) Ltd, helping design the Hutton Tension Leg Platform (the world’s first vertically moored, floating oil platform for deep water applications) which won the Queen’s Award for Technological Achievement in 1984.

My academic experience

I first developed an interest in understanding the dynamics of lakes, rivers, and estuaries when I was first employed as a lecturer at Salford University in the 1980s.

From 1990 to 2011, I was a Tutorial Fellow at St Edmund Hall, and Lecturer, Reader, and then Professor in the Department of Engineering Science at the University of Oxford.

I then became Head of Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at University College Cork, where I was the founding director of the €29m SFI Centre for Marine and Renewable Energy Ireland (MaREI). MaREI now employs more than 200 people across Ireland, and involves more than 50 companies.

Since 2013, I’ve been Professor of Applied Hydrodynamics at the University of Edinburgh.

Researching fluid mechanics

Much of my career has focused on environmental fluid mechanics.

In the 1980s, my research group investigated wave loading on flexibly mounted cylinders (such as marine risers) and floating offshore structures (including the Hutton Tension Leg Platform).

From the 1990s onwards, we studied wave-induced nearshore currents, the dispersion of oil slicks in the ocean, the interaction of extreme storm-induced waves with beaches, and wave run-up and overtopping of coastal defences.

Our methods for modelling free surface flows were applied worldwide to floods (China, Mexico), water quality (Brazil, Morocco), wave-induced currents (Spain, Mexico), lake mixing (Hungary), fish passes (Japan), sea defences (UK), and offshore structures on the continental shelf (UK, USA).

Collaborating internationally

For more than 30 years, I’ve collaborated with colleagues in Hungary on the hydrodynamics of rivers and lakes, and in China on environmental engineering, in particular long-term human and climate change effects on the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers.

An important focus has been on the impacts of cascades of dams constructed along large rivers. Our work on biological and nano-technological methods for treating polluted wastewater effluent in China helped lead to the £30m Singapore-Peking-Oxford Research Enterprise.

In recent years, my work also encompassed marine renewable energy, in particular the tidal stream power assessment of potential sites, including the Pentland Firth, and analysis of irregular seas passing over a coastal shelf on which offshore wind turbines could be located.

The importance of mentoring

Throughout my career, I’ve taken care to mentor early career researchers so that they can flourish in a world that’s rapidly changing, globalised, information-driven, and increasingly metricised.

Civil engineering is nowadays a fast-evolving, knowledge-based profession. Data analytics, robotics, and smart materials offer huge opportunities to future engineers.

A great accolade

I’d like to thank those people who acted as catalysts promoting my career, and those kind supporters who anonymously (at least at the time) put me up for the award.

To be awarded the Gold Medal by the Institution of Civil Engineers is a great accolade, which I’m very honoured to accept.

I’m particularly pleased to follow Bob Lang, my classmate and friend, the previous recipient of the medal.

Floreat Civilis Ingenium! (Flourish, civil engineers!)

  • Prof. Alistair Borthwick, Professor of Applied Hydrodynamics at the University of Edinburgh at University of Edinburgh