Interview – Bart Merci

Continuing the chain of interviews we are doing with the IMFSE lecturers and alumni. A couple of days ago, I met with Bart Merci for a quick interview. As Bart is the coordinator of the IMFSE program, I decided to make the core of the interview about the IMFSE program history and the main challenges he (as the coordinator) faced in the last few years.

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Me: Could you please introduce yourself and give an overview of your academic background?

Bart: I am Bart Merci the coordinator of the IMFSE program. My background is in mechanical engineering, I took my degree here at Ghent university in 1997. I did my Ph.D. also here at Ghent university in the topic of modeling of Turbulent flames. So mainly my background is in CFD simulations and from there I grew into the fire safety science and the link here will be flames, where you can find flames also in flaming fires. My background in CFD modeling is still now my field of expertise in the field of fire safety science.

Me: So, how did the IMFSE started and who had the idea of the IMFSE program? Could you give a brief introduction to the history of the program?

Bart: Actually, the seeds of the IMFSE were sown a little bit earlier when the post graduate program started here at Ghent university and that was triggered by industry. So Industry here in Belgium and in Flanders were feeling the need for more freedom. They were looking to have more innovative solutions for complex buildings. Then I picked up the idea and talked to my colleagues in Edinburgh and Lund, to see if they were interested in joining forces and applying to support the idea. They were interested in doing so, and the rest is history, so the first time we applied we immediately were accepted. That was quite a bit achievement because the success rate for getting approved as a program was below 10 %. That means Europe really believed in the quality we were going to offer. But you could say it is industry driven and then we elaborated on this from an academic point of view.

Me: What were the main challenges to getting things starting?

Bart: The challenges have been enormous I would say. The academics were easy to convince, we all feel that fire safety engineering is important in society, also when you look at things in terms of sustainability that is not something that most people will link to fire safety. However, there is a clear link, so as academics we were the ones that were easy to convince. But, also we have our institutes and so it has been quite a challenge to make sure that the institutes completely trust the other institutes in issuing a joint degree. As you already know, it is possible that someone doesn’t spend a semester at Ghent university but still, the rector of Ghent university will sign the degree of IMFSE and vice versa for the other universities. So it was quite a challenge to do that, and also, every institute has its own style of teaching and of doing exams and it is a bit of give and take to find some common grounds to proceed. So yes, there has been quite a number of practical challenges and things that needed to be sorted out before we even started applying to the European commission for funding. So once we got that approved, it was not too challenging to get starting because we had our structure of teaching, I also managed to hire an administration officer using the European funding so that made life a bit easier but still you do not want to see how many day to day issues we still face in working together in an international environment.

Me: What would be the situation after Brexit as for example Edinburgh is part of the UK and it is one of the main partners, would that have any effect?

Bart: That’s a very good question and also kind of a political question, again, in terms of the academics there are no issues. We are still the same colleagues as we were before and we are still teaching the same material as we did before but of course at the level of the European funding, this at the moment not very well known. In the sense as I understand it, so far everything stays as it is, because the actual Brexit still ongoing. So for the time being nothing changes and at some point we will also have to continue without the support of Europe.

In that sense, it is very important to also now get funding from industry so that we have many companies who see the value and the benefits of supporting the IMFSE. At that point, we have some basis to continue and I think it is important to be able to offer scholarships as it is attractive to the top students. For example when you are looking for a program or scanning the internet and you found an interesting program where you will have the chance to be granted a scholarship, it looks good on your CV. So the scholarship is something that is quite attractive for talented people. We are also fortunate that we have many students that are joining us on the self-sponsor basis and that gives us the income to manage the program and means that we are sufficiently interesting for people to come to Europe to study.

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Me: What are you doing to spread the word about the IMFSE program?

Bart: It is a difficult one to answer, it is clear in the begin that we have to get started so it was on the Erasmus Mundus website and we have our own website. So some people found it by searching on google. Then we tried to improve visibility by making a short movie that you should have seen by now on YouTube, we also now have a google advert campaign and the most important one we are now on the website of the IAFSS and SFPE so people find us on that way. But never the less, it proves to be a continues challenge to remain visible, as you know on the internet there are so many interesting things so that we could also use some help from our alumni and students to give us some idea on how to improve visibly and how to spread the word.

Me: So, who are you looking for to join the program? Are you looking for more fresh graduate students or those with some industrial experience? 

Bart: The answer is obvious we are looking for the top people, that is the key thing. We have had a number of extremely talented young students who had the advantage of being relatively blank page that needs to be written and they are into the rhythm of studying and dealing with complex mathematics and physics but they do not have yet any experience in the field of fire safety engineering. Then we also have had people that are more experienced and some even in the second half of their professional career, with the advantage of having an over view of what could be done in practice and also having some experience of what they will have as a framework for fire safety engineering approach but then such person could struggle with mathematics and the physics.

Also, sometimes experience can be misleading, as what we are trying to teach in the IMFSE is something new and is having basis of broad prospective, we also are trying to train you to be critical towards yourselves but also towards others and think outside the box, not just applying standards or questioning it. So that is what we are trying to stimulate. Also interaction among the students is some times perhaps more valuable than just the knowledge transfer. So that’s what we are trying to do and that is also why we are not limited to young students or professional ones. So everybody is welcome to join.

Me: What do you think will be the main changes in the program in the coming few years? like a new university joining or something?

Bart: what we see, I think we can say that we have a very solid consort, also in terms of academic research activities in the filed of fire safety science we have really top institutes at the level of the institutes themselves but also at the level of fire safety in particular. What i am expecting is, in the first few years this consort could solidate even further, also what i mean probably we could have more involvement from associated partners which is now limited to the master thesis, I would not be surprised if that could be opened up to also doing some courses, this is something that is not in place today but could happen in the future.

Me: Even if these partner universities are not in Europe, they can still offer course work?

Bart: It is important to distinguish between lets say the European funding that we have and the management of the program. Because we are allowed to have courses from institutes out side of Europe so that’s not a standing block.

Me: I would ask the question in another way, because as I know being an Erasmus Mundus program you are only allowed to put the name of European universities on the diploma and other universities outside Europe are not being granting the diploma. So having some course work in such institutes is opposing the fact of being an Erasmus Mundus program.

Bart: Exactly, that is not a thing we can do today, but it is something we can do in the future as you were asking me about the future. So that is something that I would definitely be willing to explore and see how that could be strengthened even more. I dont want to strive at the moment to expand the consortium, I think that the partners that we have are all very motivated to having the program. I am sure other institutes could be qualified and also motivated to join the program but also it needs to be manageable so that is something to take into account.

Me: Can you talk a bit about the fire safety days that you organize? what is the main idea behind these events? 

Bart: These fire safety days serve multiple goals, one direct trigger is the establishment of the sponsorship consortium that we have and which brings the industrial commitment much close to the program than before. So these fire safety days serves the purpose of the chance to have a meet and greet day between the IMFSE students and the companies. Companies are interested because you are top of the world in the field of fire safety engineering, you are supposed also to be interested as after finishing the studies you are supposed to be looking for a job, so that is one thing. But it also goes beyond that, it is a great networking event even for us academics with our colleagues in the industry. We always try to define a theme around which many stakeholders are working, we as researchers, our industry  colleagues and then people from society. Because may be they want to build some infrastructure that needs to be designed in a resilient way or because sustainability is becoming more and more important in the built environment. So what we are trying to do there is having this from networking and to have like a direct contact between the companies and the students. So far, the feedbacks that we got about these days are extremely positive from all stakeholders and that is something that we definitely want to keep doing on annual basis. I can already say that the next one will be in Belgium.

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Me: Would you expect an increase in the number of scholarships in the coming few years?

Bart: It is hard to say, we will apply again for the European funding to get extension for the program. It is impossible to predict whether or not we will be granted this renew. One thing that I am proud of and that’s again a joint effort of everyone is that we have received a very high score when we were visited by someone from the European commission to monitor our program. We were visited in Lund during the latest fire safety engineering day and the person was really impressed by the quality and also by the feedback that he received from the students who were there. So that’s looking good but you never know what is going to happen in the future.

Me: That brings us to the end of the interview, if you want to add anything more please go ahead.

Bart: Well, may be one thing I would like to add because you asked about the challenges to get the program starting, there has been many but it is really important that all these challenges are worth it because we as academics are working with top people and here I refer to the students. So you are really very talented young persons that are hopefully going to design the future of our society and our planet. I think that looking now you are building a network of alumni and the vast majority of alumni remains in the field of the fire safety science, which is a good thing by itself, but also they are growing very rapidly into successful and important positions. So already now, even-though we are less than ten years in business, we are seeing the impact. I mean that in practice but very specific example is also going to be in the academic route, in the research route, where we have the IAFSS symposium coming up and there will be tens of IMFSE students and alumni present there so this shows that we are doing something that actually worth it. So it worth all the headaches and the challenges. I also want to add that in the end the starting up of the IMFSE program was a huge effort and it could never have been done if not all the institutes were as motivated to do that. It would have been mission impossible if either of us had simply tried to go with the flow, everybody really pushed and pulled at the beginning and now that the train is running, it is a bit easier you could say than to get things started.

So that’s all, hope you enjoyed the interview and if you are interested in reading more interviews please go to the following links:

  1. Interview – Patrick van Hees
  2. Interview – Vladimir Parezanović
  3. Interview – Ivana Paunović & Bojan Coti

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