UCL News


Spotlight on Professor Yiannis Ventikos

16 September 2014

This week the spotlight is on Professor Yiannis Ventikos, Kennedy Professor and Head of Department, Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Yiannis Ventikos

What is your role and what does it involve?

As an academic and HoD, I have a dual role: research and teaching on the one hand, HoD functions on the other. It is very interesting to observe and identify where the two roles cross over and where they are clearly separated. I am always surprised to find that this distinction is neither obvious nor intuitive. I have also discovered something that, with hindsight, one should expect: when people depend on you and expect you to deliver, on a number of different fronts, you cannot just drop one function and only pursue the other, even for short periods of time. 

In effect, even in situations where the distinction could be clear prima facie, circumstances often lead to the two functions blending. That being said, UCL Mechanical Engineering is going through a transformative phase, where we are re-evaluating our activities, but also how we conduct the various aspects of academic work we are pursuing. This involves, in good engineering spirit and practice, measuring and quantifying accurately what we spend our time and resources on, evaluating what additional resources we need to achieve our ambitions, and strategising on how to get those resources. 

In this very much in-flux situation, I feel that an important role the HoD has to play is to make sure he listens but also is being heard.

How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?

I joined UCL in July 2013, and took over as Head of Department in Mechanical Engineering in September. Before that, I was Professor of Engineering Science at the Department of Engineering Science at Oxford University and a Tutorial Fellow at Wadham College. I have moved quite a bit in my (academic) life: stops included Switzerland, the USA, a bit of France and of course Greece, where I come from originally. 

I consider the fact that I have 'existed' academically in so many quite diverse environments (some with idiosyncrasies that are puzzling, to say the least) to be a great strength of mine. I believe that such a range of experiences helps one develop an eye for what works in each particular setting and what doesn't. It revealed to me that there are very few - if any - absolute truths and that trying is usually worth it, even if not successful at first.

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

I believe that academia is a rather unique type of human activity. It entails a continuous effort for betterment, and pursuing novelty and innovation is really the only way forward. Especially the type of academic activity I am part of, engineering, is extraordinarily characterised by trying to teach students to constantly pursue the unachievable ("send a man to the moon? That is crazy!").

Even within such a setting, I iconoclastically consider that the 'output' of most exceptional value in university engineering is people. People I have interacted with, worked with, taught, that are pursuing excellence, is what I feel most proud of.

Tell us about a project you are working on now which is top of your to-do list?

My field of research is fluid mechanics. I am rather evangelical about fluid mechanics - they are everywhere and relate to everything. The basic dynamics I study apply, pretty much unaltered, to a range of fields in nature and technology that surprise and stun the uninitiated. Here is a certainly non-exhaustive list: cosmic clouds, the Sun, the atmosphere and climate (and climate change for that matter), cars (their slick shapes but under the hood too), airplanes and ships, Usain Bolt, blood flow, the headaches I get when I see this list and myriads of other situations!

It is everywhere and it relates to everything. As you can appreciate, this makes for a rather diverse academic activity that is full of surprises! It allows a fluid mechanician the choice of working on pretty much anything one fancies.

What is your favourite album, film and novel?

My all-time favourite album is John Barleycorn Must Die by 'Traffic'. I was probably a teenager when I was first given that LP. I had a turntable that you could set in a way that it would play the same set of songs again and again. The first side of that LP must have been playing non-stop for a week I think. I can appreciate that the younger readers will not know what 'turntable' and 'LP' mean!

A film that I really like is Groundhog Day. It is a really funny comedy - it is also exactly what life is for most of us, unless we are really really careful. It is a comment about routine, and what a rut it is. It is also a comment about how you can fix things in your life if you know what you need to fix; but you must really know and not just think you know. At the end of the day, the film discusses whether love helps you get it right or getting it right helps you find love (still undecided about that!).

A book that I read recently and I found particularly captivating was Inside the Centre, a biography of Robert Oppenheimer. Beyond the genius, the controversy, the Manhattan Project, the tragedy, there is also a second (and more esoteric) reading there on how circumstances and a relatively small group of inspired and driven people changed the shape of higher education worldwide.

What is your favourite joke (pre-watershed)?

My favourite joke??? Now, this is a rather unexpected question! Unexpected like the Spanish Inquisition: nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!!! Their chief weapon is surprise...surprise and fear...fear and surprise.... Their two weapons are fear and surprise...and ruthless efficiency.... Their three weapons are…

Who would be your dream dinner guests?

I guess one's immediate reaction to this question is to name people that you would like to learn from; people that you would like to ask questions. However this would not be very nice for them, it would be invitation to interrogation and not to dinner. So, I would invite people that I would like to entertain, have interesting conversations with, cook for (yes, I can) and make sure we all have a good time. 

So, in no particular order, here are the lucky ones that would taste my beef and honey stew: Neil Armstrong (composure, modesty, dignity, and humility personified - as most engineers are, but maybe with one or two good stories to share), Heracleitus (since he got it right first), Jo Brand (unfathomably funny Zen master), Alan Turing (won a war, invented computing, discovered morphogenesis, what else…), Lao Tzu (since he got it first right), Michelle Obama (love the dynamics; plus one most welcome) Dian Fossey (there are very few people in the world that I feel I would be delighted to do exactly what they did - Fossey is one of them). Plus me and my wife Joanna, that's ten. Where shall we sit all these people??? (inevitable Estates pun).

What advice would you give your younger self?

Two pieces of advice:

First, I remember I was disconcerted during the first couple of years of uni, because there was tons of maths and physics and stuff, and I wanted to be an engineer and there weren't enough engineering practical topics to get my hands dirty, metaphorically speaking - or actually not metaphorically at all!

It's not good to disenchant aspiring young engineers like that; we have taken care of this in the Faculty by introducing the Integrated Engineering Programme that has loads of hands-on from day one, exposes students to real world challenges and invites them to be creative (the hallmark of good engineering) and solve them!

However, that is not going to help young engineering student Yiannis now. So, when I invent a time machine, I will go back to the 18 year old me and tell me to pull my socks up and stop whining and try to learn as much of that basic boring stuff as possible and learn it well and learn it permanently, because it is the bit that it's almost impossible to pick up later on in life.

Then, I would dial the time machine's controls to my 26 years old self and I would insist that there is no excuse for not exercising. There is always work and more work and then some - keeping in a reasonably decent shape helps in more ways than my younger self could imagine. I will insist that I take my word for it.

What would it surprise people to know about you?

I snowboard. I am not very good technically, since I started this 'activity' at a later age, but I enjoy it immensely. It is also an excellent excuse to find yourself in places of stunning beauty and near-impossible access. 

Given my build, I develop more kinetic energy than a bullet when I snowboard (unfortunately, not because I am fast); thus I am very conscious that beyond the risk of injuring myself, I am also a threat to others - I am therefore super-careful. That being said, I have had very weird, exotic and funny (to onlookers and innocent bystanders) accidents, that were fortunately of no serious consequence, to date.

What is your favourite place?

I am convinced that being at one's favourite place is less of a spatial issue and more a state of mind. My favourite place is where I am happy and I am having fun and I am being creative and I am with the people I like and love. To negate completely the previous two sentences then - the Alps!