Interview with Luke Bisby

Following the interviews with Fire Safety Engineering academic staff carried out by my predecessors, I managed to secure an interview with Luke Bisby – Professor of Fire and Structures and Head of Research Institute of School of Engineering, University of Edinburgh. During the interview, we were frequently interrupted almost every 5 minutes by other faculty members (and even by Prof Dougal Drysdale!) which was quite funny and entertaining as it showed a strong camaraderie between professors of our University.  So, Luke Bisby – about the best job in the world, history of Fire Safety Depertment and TV career.

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Me: Why did you decide to pursue a future in academic field instead of joining the industry?

Luke: There are two answers – good one and the real one. The good answer is that I think it is a best job in the world. You spend your entire professional life doing something that you find interesting. You have no real boss. Yes, you will never going to get rich, but you will never going to be poor. You are always going to be comfortable. I cannot think of something better. Unless you don’t want to be hugely, independently wealthy. In which case, being engineer is a bad choice. In my opinion.

The real reason, it is because it just happened.

I graduated from my undergraduate degree, thinking I was going to go industry in Canada. In that time, in the late 90s, there were not many jobs. Especially, in the small town where a girl with whom I was dating lived. However, there was a good University in that town. My girlfriend’s father was an administration of School of Engineering. I got a meeting with one of the professors and started Research Master’s Degree. I got on very well with my supervisor and he asked if I wanted to do Ph.D. And I said “okey”.

I started teaching a little bit and I really enjoyed it. The year before I finished my Ph.D there was a job for an assistant professor. I applied for the job and I stayed doing that for 5 years, enjoying it. And then I met Jose Torero, he is a very convincing guy and it didn’t take him long to convince me that I should move to Edinburgh. And now I’ve been here for 10 years. So, how did I choose Ph.D – it just happened! I am not even a fire safety engineer, I am a Structural engineer.

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Me: How do one decide when to continue studying and doing Ph.D or going to jobpursuing a career in the industry?

Luke: I don’t think it matters. Just make sure you are enjoying yourself. And if you are not, just do something else. And if it means not doing Fire Safety – that’s fine. Not everyone can be expected to enjoy everything.

Me: Looking back, what advice would you give yourself as you were working on your Masters?

Luke:  I worked too hard. I didn’t spent enough time enjoying that time of life. So be careful of doing nothing else but work.

Don’t work quite so hard. Enjoy life.

Especially, in a group of international peers in the place like Edinburgh. Sure, you need to study hard and get decent grades, but you need to be absolutely sure that you are taking some time to experience life.

Me: What was your favourite course during your Masters?

Luke: My masters was in Structural Engineering. The course that I enjoyed the most, was probably, prestressed concrete, because I love Engineering Mechanics. It allows you to look at the world and see the way the world is doing in a very interesting way. You look at the building and you can understand why engineers put the column here or something. It is not obvious to non-engineers.

But when you are an engineer, it allows you to look at the world in the way like you have a secret you are not telling everyone.

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Me: Do you agree that University of Edinburgh is now the centre of Fire Science in Great Britain?

Luke: Yes, absolutely!

Me: Why did it historically happen?

Luke: It is a very interesting history. Most people don’t know that Edinburgh was the the first city that ever set up a professional fire brigade. The first university-based academic Masters Degree in Fire Safety was set up in Edinburgh in 1973-74. And that was because the guy who was the fire chief in Edinburgh of that time, Frank Rushbrook. When he retired from the fire service , he was able to convince the principle of Edinburgh University that if he raised the money for the Department of Fire Safety, the University would create a program in Fire Safety. They hired David Rasbash, he was the first professor of fire safety, who then hired Drysdale, he became a second Professror of Fire Safety, who then became Jose Torero, and that it became Albert Simeoni, and then it became Grunde Jomaas.

Why did the University grow? Because of the personalities involved who are particularly enthusiastic about the topic. Dougal Drysdale was sort of the pioneering voices in fire safety. And of course, after Dougal came Jose, and he is particularly charismatic and convincing figure. So we have a largest number of academic study in Fire safety and we continue to grow.

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Luke Bisby with HRH Princess Anne and Frank Rushbrook.

Me: I know that you have a Research project, related to the Grenfell Tower. Is it allowed for you to comment the situation?

Luke: All I can say about Grenfell is what is publically available, because I am an Instructed Expert Witness to the Grenfell Public Inquiry. Which basically prevents me from saying anything that I know about the Tower. I can say it is very interesting work, that I never expected to be doing.

Me: Along with your research and teaching activities, you are also involved in the TV career. What is this TV program?

Luke: Impossible Engineering. It is on Yesterday Channel.

I’ve done maybe 10-12 episodes looking at various aspects of engineering. We’ve done staff in our labs, we have gone around the world to see different sites, to look at different things and climb on bridges, fly airplanes and all sorts of stuff. It is super cool! Super fun!

And again if you said to me how did that happen. I don’t know. It just happened. You just go through life doing things you enjoy, being enthusiastic about the world and good things happen.

Me: On what are you focusing your research projects now?

Luke: My research areas seem to grow a little bit with time. As I said, I’m a structural engineer, so most of my work is structural fire work. Although more and more I’m getting pulled in to areas related to fire dynamics and combustion. Mostly because I work quite closely with Rory Hadden who is very interested in Fire Dynamics and Angus Law, who is also a structural engineer, but he is very interested in the Fire science aspect as well. And also Grunde, who is obviously a combustion person fundamentally.

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So now and earlier the work that I’ve been interested in is related to reinforced concrete and the questions about how concrete buildings perform in fire. The work on fibre reinforced polymers and how they react mechanically under elevated temperature, because of softening of the polymers and all sorts of other interesting behaviors.

And more recently, timber. So how does timber reacts to elevating temperature, not from a fire dynamics or combustion perspective, but from a structural mechanical perspective, and the performance of intumescent paints, which is more heat transfer type work. I also still do some normal structural engineering work which isn’t related to fire. And right now it is related to the structural uses of polymer composites. So a whole bunch of different measures.

Me: Thank you for your time!

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