Postgraduate Lives: Philip Athayde, engineering student at Cambridge

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The Independent Online

Philip Athayde, 27, is undertaking a doctorate at Cambridge University

Have you ever looked at an engine? If you have, you'll have seen an inlet and then behind that a fan which pulls air in. What I'm researching is how adverse weather conditions - mainly crosswinds - affect the inlet and the fan of a Rolls-Royce aircraft engine. I'm looking principally at what happens when the aircraft is moving slowly on the ground but the engines are at a high-power setting.

An engine has to be tested before it's certified and put into an aircraft. Rolls-Royce have a testing facility in Nottinghamshire where they run tests in natural and in forced wind. My work centres on forced wind. I work in a lab using a wind tunnel - which provides the crosswind - and a model engine. But I'm also looking at how Rolls-Royce can move towards a more computational fluid-dynamics approach in which you simulate conditions on a computer. Ultimately this will be a cheaper and more effective way of testing, for example you can test different blades as well as wind coming from different angles. Rolls-Royce wants to increase its understanding of inlet flow in order to make its engines better. The more it knows, the better it can design aircraft engines.

When I was a child I always saw planes flying over London and I could never understand how they stayed in the air. I felt I had to find out. I attended a comprehensive in south London, and after A-levels I decided to pursue my interest in engineering with specific emphasis on aircraft. I did a Bachelors and then a Masters in mechanical engineering at Brunel University. Friends persuaded me to apply for a PhD at Cambridge but I wasn't sure I'd ever get in. Cambridge is seen to be an exclusive university but I've found the people here really friendly and accessible. I was fortunate to get a Case studentship (a Collaborative Award in Science and Engineering) from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and Rolls-Royce, that pays the tuition fees and gives me a salary too.

I'm based at the Whittle Laboratory, which specialises in turbo machinery. The laboratory takes its name from Sir Frank Whittle, one of the pioneers of the jet engine. I'm working hard at the moment because I'm in my final year and I spend most days in the lab, from 9am to 7pm, and often on Saturdays too. The nature of a PhD is that it's always on your mind.

I do peer out of the window quite a lot when I fly these days. I'm more aware of things that can go wrong. But I still think what an amazing thing it is to be able to fly; I'm still in awe of an aircraft engine.