Dr Clare Wood is a lecturer in the College of Engineering at Swansea University. Her research focuses on computational simulation of fluids and structures for novel applications in engineering, medicine and biosciences.
CAN you imagine a world without some of the science and engineering innovations of the last 50 years? No internet, silicon chip technology, fibre optic communications, mobile phones or DNA sequencing.
It was the UK that led so much of this cutting-edge research and it is the UK that must push towards the next scientific, engineering or medical breakthrough if we want to be a player in the research and industrial innovations of the next 50 years.
It might surprise some people to learn that Swansea University is a world leader in something called computational engineering research.
Fundamental techniques such as the Finite Element Method were first pioneered here more than 40 years ago and today we are still going strong.
My own research focuses on multidisciplinary problems – that is, problems that involve two or more physical phenomena or problems at the same time.
A typical example is fluid-structure interaction – the fluid could be water, blood, air and so on whilst the structure could be part of a machine or aircraft, a building or part of the human body.
Very often the way a fluid moves is closely related to the behaviour of some structure or body that it is in physical contact with.
For example, you can see fluid-structure interaction in real life in tall buildings and bridge decks as they sway because of the wind, in the oscillation of aircraft wings due to the airflow over them during flight, or in the flapping or inflation of fabric or membrane-type structures such as sails and car airbags.
Inside our bodies there are many different types of fluid-structure interaction – a wonderful example is the flow of blood through the heart as it expands and contracts, forcing the valves open and closed.
To simulate these types of behaviour it is necessary to set up a computer program which constantly communicates information between the solvers for the fluid flow problem and the structure problem until a point of balance between the fluid and the structure is reached. One of the things that I find most exciting about my work is the diversity of potential applications for multidisciplinary computational modelling and the fact that it often involves collaboration with experts from non-engineering backgrounds.
For instance, for the last three years I have been working with cardiothoracic surgeons at Morriston Hospital, Swansea, to develop fluid-structure interaction modelling that enables better understanding of heart and valve function.
This research is motivated by the fact that mechanical heart valves, often used to replace a non-functional natural heart valve, are known to sometimes cause red blood cell damage. This damage is easily prevented by consistent treatment with blood-thinning drugs, but ideally we would like to be able to identify what it is about the design of the mechanical valve that causes the red blood cell damage in the first place.
My computer models allow me to study very closely what happens to the blood as it flows through the moving components of the mechanical valve and identify complex features in the blood flow that could be causing the red blood cell damage.
Participating in the Welsh Crucible programme has also recently helped me to make the link to bioscience. Complex marine ecosystems directly influence the marine food-chain, fisheries and therefore food security at a global level.
Researchers in the College of Science at Swansea University are trying to understand how microscopic life-forms, such as plankton, are affected by the conditions of the marine environment they live in, including physical aspects such as fluid flow and fluid mixing.
Over the next few months I aim to develop a coupled multidisciplinary computer model of the fluid dynamics and the plankton ecosystem, in order to gain improved understanding of how physical changes in marine environments can affect plankton populations.
Given the increasing development of marine energy projects in the UK, such as the Severn Barrage, as well as anticipated changes in the marine environment due to climate change, I believe that engineering-bioscience computer modelling will be of growing importance.
I aim for my research to have a real-world impact in this area in the coming years.
To contact Clare please email firstname.lastname@example.org
This article first appeared in the Western Mail‘s Health Wales supplement on 12th November 2012, as part of the Welsh Crucible series of research profiles.