Dr Vladimir Vukovic, Deputy Director of the Energy research stream within UA’s Doctoral Training Alliance relates his experience working across both academia and industry, and the benefits this has brought him.
The DTA programme is committed to not only supporting researchers through their PhDs but providing them with the full range of skills and experience they’ll need for a fulfilling career in academia or industry. Working with the DTA Energy researchers, Dr Vukovic has firsthand experience of how the programme helps to bridge the divide between these two sectors, giving students the industry experience they need to apply their research.
Having always focused on applied research himself, Vladimir understands the importance of this experience. Following his PhD, he began his academic career at the Austrian Institute of Technology (AIT), Austria’s largest research and technology organisation. He worked in the area of Sustainable Building Technologies, researching and developing technologies that would later be implemented by industry. Realising that their work was not sufficiently recognised on the international stage, he began to submit applications for international collaborative research projects, which were run in conjunction with industry partners.
It was through one of these industry partners, Exergy Ltd, that he first came to the UK, when he was hired as their Research and Business Director. A collaborative research project with Teesside University eventually brought him full circle, back to academia. He is now a Senior Research Lecturer in Teesside’s Engineering Department and is responsible for project acquisition as well as managing a number of research projects.
He says that working in industry has given him key transferable skills, which have served him well in his new work environment, “Typically, all work that happens in industry happens in projects, which means that it has a defined beginning and an end, goals, objectives, deliverables, resources, delivery plan. Although publicly funded organisations worked differently in the past, with financial pressures, they are now having to adapt and adopt project based organisation.”
His understanding of industry needs, has also had a more specific impact on the work he does at Teesside. He says, “My previous experience has guided me to streamline my mindset towards the needs of the industry. When preparing new research funding applications I try to find out what are the main challenges faced by the industry partners and how could we address them using state-of-the-art or future technologies.”
According to Vladimir, this understanding is something Early Career Researchers really benefit from gaining at the beginning of their academic journeys, “The earlier researchers realise how industry works and thinks, the higher the chances are for them to contribute to prosperity of our society. When I was very young, I defined my purpose in life as a need to contribute to the progress of mankind. If that is something one wants to do, one needs to understand the processes and tools common in the industries which affect this progress. And, in doing this, many doors for employment will open for such individuals, in academia, industry, government and international organisations.”
Ensuring that research has tangible industrial benefits and applications is hugely important because as he infers, the work that Vladimir and his students do has important implications for society. On the DTA Energy programme now researchers are looking into everything from making buildings more energy efficient, to employing seaweed as a potential renewable energy source. Similarly, through inteGRIDy, another project he runs, he hopes to have real impact on energy prices, demand and those who produce as well as consume energy through the creation of smart grids allowing people to buy and sell energy flexibly with their neighbours.
Gaining the industry experience to support this research being applied in the real world, is, however, not always straightforward. This is where the DTA comes in. Vladimir highlights that the programme provides both organisational and practical support, by, for example, working with universities to allow students time off their studies to undertake placements, or highlighting current industry placement opportunities through newsletters.
Furthermore, the very nature of the programme, its focus on collaboration, brings students into contact with more opportunities, advice and experience than they would have otherwise. For example, Vladimir himself was able to support DTA student Matthias Pilz from Kingston University to gain industry experience through the prestigious Spark! Contest. He relates that, “after I gave a presentation about student competition opportunities, a student from one of the DTA partner universities approached DTA management team with an idea to participate in a funding competition to launch a new energy startup. He was able to find like-minded colleagues and form a team to launch a new electric car charger service company, later dubbed as the “airbnb” of electric vehicle charging by the Spark! committee. I provided suggestions and edited the funding application incorporating some of the outcomes of the research funding projects I led over the past years. In the end the application came out as a runner up for the whole nationwide competition and won the Spirit of Spark! award.”
As Vladimir suggests, the greatest benefit of the DTA to its researchers is “feeling like you are not alone”. In bringing together those from different universities, with different viewpoints, to share and collaborate, DTA not only supports its students through their PhDs but helps to ensure that their research can be applied by industry to solve some of the great challenges of the future and “contribute to the progress of mankind”.
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