Inspiring the next generation of engineers to fight pandemics


IMechE Fellow Professor Cath Noakes – image credit The Royal Institution

Disease transmission is generally viewed as a medical challenge, but Covid-19 has demonstrated how important engineering is to understanding the pathways of infection and mitigating risks in our homes, schools, workplaces, and our social environments.

The science of virus transmission and engineering responses such as masks and ventilation are a feature of this year Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, where IMechE Fellow Professor Cath Noakes of the University of Leeds is one of the guest speakers.

Christmas lectures are designed for a younger audience to inspire them about science and technology.

Some of the UK’s foremost scientists have attended Christmas conferences since their inception in 1825, including Michael Faraday and Sir David Attenborough.

This year’s format will see Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer, deliver three keynote speakers on how science has responded to the pandemic and how the major research effort it triggered will transform society.

For each of the lectures, Professor Van-Tam will be joined by two guest speakers, each of whom have played a key role in the UK’s response to the pandemic and will lead on-screen exploration in their area of ​​scientific expertise.

The talk featuring Professor Noakes is titled Perfect Storm and will screen Wednesday, December 29 at 8 p.m. on BBC Four. The other expert for this conference is Julia Gog, professor of mathematical biology at the University of Cambridge.

The role of fluid dynamics

During the lecture, Professor Noakes will examine the physics of transmission, considering how viruses are transported between people and how human behavior and the indoor environment influence the risk of exposure.

Professor Noakes said that “Transmission occurs through aerosols and droplets that carry viruses, and strategies such as keeping our distance, wearing masks and having effective building ventilation are important in controlling the spread. ”

“We can use the principles of fluid dynamics, commonly applied in engineering, to understand the behavior of these aerosols and droplets, and use them to design the most effective strategies to manage risk.”

Pandemic response engineering

Engineers around the world have been involved in supporting the pandemic response by developing new technologies such as air purification devices and working to assess and improve buildings to reduce exposure to transported viruses. in the air.

This includes the IMechE Covid-19 working group which brought together members of special interest groups and regions of institutions to provide expert knowledge on engineering solutions.

The group has developed a Manual to support engineering solutions, contributed to the Royal Academy of Engineering report on infection-resilient environments and deliver a Classes train engineers in the principles of infection control for buildings.

Mark Jackson, President and Sponsor IMechE Pandemic Infection Control Solutions – Institution of Mechanical Engineers Working Group, said, “We need practical solutions to enable us to live in a world where we face diseases that stem from of our lack of clean air. The work Professor Noakes brings to the team allows us as engineers to use science to create safer indoor living spaces ”

A future resistant to infections

The pandemic has shown that buildings play an important role in the transmission of respiratory diseases, but that they are also a major contributor to carbon emissions through their heating and ventilation systems. Developing new approaches to enable buildings to be energy efficient and healthy for their occupants is an important challenge that must be addressed urgently.

Professor Noakes said: “It is important that the next generation of engineers understand the importance of buildings to health and ensure that they are sustainable. We will only achieve this if engineers work across disciplines to ensure that technological approaches address biological challenges and effectively interface with human behavior.

“I hope this year’s Christmas conference will give young people a glimpse of the wider roles engineers can play and inspire them to think creatively about some of the big questions in society.”

The Christmas Lectures will be broadcast at 8 p.m. on BBC Four on Tuesday December 28, Wednesday December 29 and Thursday December 30. Professor Noakes’ lecture takes place on Wednesdays. The lectures will also be available on BBC iPlayer.

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