A class of her own: Dame Professor Ann Dowling, University of Cambridge

Laura Hopperton talks to the head of one of the largest and most prestigious engineering departments in the UK about the challenges currently facing the industry and what is being done to solve them.

As with so many leading engineers, for Professor Dame Ann Dowling, who heads up the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge, the seeds of her career were sown at an early age. "It all started with a summer job at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough," she says. "I spent two summers there researching aircraft noise after completing an undergraduate degree in mathematics at Cambridge. At the time, Concorde was carrying out its proving flights and noise had become the issue that would decide whether or not it would be allowed to land in the US. It was an exciting time that proved crucial in the development of aviation." Indeed, it was researching aircraft noise at this young age that would help Professor Dowling identify what would become her area of specialisation. Her current role is the latest chapter in a glittering career which has seen her widely acknowledged as one of the industry's most respected figures in the areas of combustion, acoustics and vibration. Enthused by her experiences at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Professor Dowling made the decision to switch from mathematics to engineering and embarked on a PhD in aircraft noise, once again at the University of Cambridge. However, because there was less interest in noise reduction at that time, she began to work on other areas of unsteady flow, such as underwater acoustics. The focus at first was on sonar systems used by the UK Ministry of Defence, and then acoustic streamers used in the oil industry. "After that I got interested in combustion - particularly lower emission combustion. And that's really what's been at the heart of my research since," notes Professor Dowling. "It's about enabling combustion to occur with less harmful emissions than before and with good efficiency." One of the most high-profile projects Dowling has been involved with was the Silent Aircraft initiative, a collaboration between the University of Cambridge and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US. Established in 2003, the project had the aim of developing a conceptual design for an aircraft whose noise would be reduced down to the background noise level in an urban environment. "The Silent Aircraft initiative is one that sticks in my mind as great ­­fun," Professor Dowling recalls. "There were about 40 of us working on the project over a period of about four and a half years. We really wanted to make a difference – not just shave off a few decibels – and eventually came up with a conceptual blended-wing design that was 25dB quieter than any commercial aircraft in service at the time." One of the main reasons Professor Dowling decided on a career in engineering, she says, is because she could see the real difference it could make. "I think that's a message that has really gotten across to younger generations as well," she notes. "When the rise in tuition fees came in we weren't sure what effect it would have on the department. Most engineering degrees are four year courses, so it's a big investment. In actual fact, all the evidence pointed to the fact that graduates were choosing the courses that would give them a job at the end of it. It's no secret that those who have completed engineering degrees are among the best paid and no wonder the number of applicants we've received has gone up by about 60% over the past seven years." Professor Dowling's latest venture sees her taking part in a major international summit being held in London next year that will explore new approaches to solving some of the world's most pressing challenges. The inaugural, two-day summit is a new collaboration of the Royal Academy of Engineering and the national academies of engineering in the US and China. The emphasis, she says, is on finding engineering solutions to issues such as sustainability, resilience of infrastructure and climate change. Other themes include health, education, technology and growth, and 'enriching life'. "The last one is all about the way in which engineering and technology can underpin not just these big serious topics, but the creative industries and the fun things in life," Professor Dowling says. "We really want to inspire a generation and make them go away and think about what can be done to address these global challenges. It's about making everybody aware of the vital role engineering has to play." *The Global Grand Challenges Summit is to be held in London between 12th and 13th March 2013. For more information, visit www.raeng.org.uk.