Interview – Oriol Rios Rubiras

It’s always pleasant and encouraging seeing how IMFSE alumni grow through their careers, and work in inspiring companies all around the World. One of great examples of that is my master thesis co-supervisor Oriol Rios Rubiras who was a part of the second ever cohort of IMFSE master program. I had a pleasure of interviewing him during my recent visit to CERN. We discussed Oriol’s IMFSE experiences, working in CERN, current fire safety engineering world trends and many other interesting topics!

Me: Can you tell me a bit about your background, and about the steps that lead you to enrolling IMFSE?

Oriol: My background is in physics (bachelor + master). When I was done with that, I wanted to go more into application of that, because I wanted to move away from theoretical physics. At that time, I was a volunteer firefighter, and I thought it would be sexy to study fire from a scientific point of view. 😊 Actually, the thing was that I looked for any Masters related to fire and I saw IMFSE. When I realized that it was a part of Erasmus Mundus I applied, got selected, and started it! I was only the second cohort of IMFSE students. At the time I applied, the first semester ever of the program was going on.

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Surrounded by the mighty Alps, CERN is certainly a magnificent place for mountain lovers!

Me: How was your IMFSE experience overall, and what were the best things about it?

Oriol: Really good memories from the IMFSE. That was an amazing entry point to fire safety engineering. For me, I take a lot of friends, fire safety engineers that are spread around the world. And it’s really a great network when you start working, or doing your scientific career, because you have contacts for any kind of issues you may have. That is really powerful. And as well getting to know many teachers, professor, and key players in fire safety engineering world. I realized after the two years that I knew almost half of the people from the fire safety engineering active world just because I was in the master.

Me: How were your experiences from each of the universities you attended? What is the best single thing about each of the universities (Gent, Lund, Edinburgh)?

Oriol: I went to all three of them. I would say depends on what you look for, each university has its strong points. From Edinburgh I remember high fire safety science lectures, really inspiring ones given by Guillermo Rein. He started teaching after Jose Torero left. He is really enthusiastic and it was great motivation into the field. From Edinburgh I remember as well, the activities around the university – social and outdoor activities in Scotland were impressive.

From Lund, it was a really well-organized semester. All the facilities that university offers and all the lab work were really good and smooth. On top of that we did really interesting visits to research institutes and FSE companies (SP, DBI, WSP etc.). It was really pleasant to study there.

And from Gent, I remember also some demanding and really enriching subjects, specially the explosions subject, with some interesting visits on site and external labs.

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On site visits are always fun

Me: Are you still in touch with the people from your cohort, or with other IMFSE related people – teachers, staff etc.?

Oriol: Yes, we are still keeping up the connection (mainly email and messaging groups). We are trying to keep up with all the cohort. Both for social activities, whenever we visit each other, or professional activities whenever we have any doubt. You just send a mail to the list, and in few minutes, you get really interesting replies from all over the world. So, for me that’s a priceless resource.

Me: Did you ever consider pursing an engineering career in industry, or you always knew that PhD was “the only right way” for you? 😉

Oriol: I was definitely hesitating. But I thought that with my physics background, I could benefit a little bit on research so I really wanted to give it a try in the fire safety research field, and that’s why I went for a PhD to try to apply some physics concepts into a fire science, which from my regard was like a young science, so still a lot of room for development and improvement. That’s why I got hooked into the research field. Afterwards, I wanted to move in a balance between research and industry (and I think I found it!).

Moving on to PhD was really smooth, because I pursued a PhD on the same topic as my master thesis in IMFSE, because I really wanted to explore a topic that is not covered in the master – wildfires.

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IMFSE crew in CERN – Oriol, Melchior, Patrick and me

Me: How was your experience with conducting a PhD in fire engineering, and would you recommend it to future IMFSE graduates and students?

Oriol: The experience is great, because the good thing is that it’s not a super big family, so if you move enough, you get to know all of the key players, and that’s great because you have the feeling of really following all the field, and you know all the faces. The experience was enriching, being able to contribute on expanding the fire safety science field is an honour. Although I would say that a PhD is not always “sweet happy flowers” time, I definitely had hard times doing a PhD, and I would only recommend it to those people who believe in research and have some endurance. It can sometimes be difficult to keep up with research itself, if you are not really convinced of your willingness to contribute to science.

Me: What are the essential research fields that fire science community needs to focus on in near future in your opinion?

Oriol: First, what I am working on now, modelling. That’s actually the state of art and it is being applied more and more. We need to get sounder applications of modelling because otherwise it becomes kind of a wild jungle if everyone just uses models without a sound knowledge and properly defendable outputs of your model. So, modelling, validating and testing is one of the fields – especially in compartment and industrial fires.

Then the field without doubt is wildland – urban interface (WUI), which is hot topic, and will become even more hot. Big wildfires go over extinguishing capacities and over planning capacities, so they impact to human areas and then we have devastating consequences. We have seen this in Canada, Chile and US (among many others) last summer. Science, in my opinion, has a lot to say about this in terms better tools for preventing, understanding and fighting it.

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At least we are certainly “fire-safe” up in the deep snow of Mont Blanc 🙂

Me: How did the CERN opportunity occur, and how challenging is it working in the most renowned scientific institution in the world?

Oriol: I was finishing my PhD, and thanks to the friends I made in IMFSE, I got the information that CERN was looking for a FSE. Since Lund University was already collaborating with CERN, I decided to apply. As a physicist, I never thought they would look for a fire safety engineer. I only knew CERN because of physics, and not because of fire. So, I applied, and I got selected, so that’s how I started.

When you work in CERN, you hallucinate a little bit because of the magnitude of everything. I have never seen so many tunnels, cables, cable trays, cabinets and other hazards put together in the same place and underground. So, it is really challenging at the beginning. For example, first task I was given was a circular tunnel, which you never thought of how to simulate the ring tunnel. We do have unique problems, but also, we have unique resources – computational resources, opportunities to train ourselves, learn, network and collaborate. I think those two aspects are really engaging and motivating.

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The mind-blowing antimatter factory

Me: What is your main field of work now in CERN?

Oriol: On one hand, working on FCC study – that’s Future Circular Collider. The project on the continuation of CERN. This project foresees a tunnel of around 100km length 400 meters below ground. I am contributing to the fire study of the conceptual phase that is being done at the moment. As you can imagine, 100km long tunnel, located 400m below ground can pose some headaches in terms of safety and evacuation.

And then I contribute generally on safety aspects mainly dealing with simulation around the CERN areas. And for the future, I am quite excited, because we are launching a project called FIRIA – Fire Induced Radiological Integrated Assessment. That’s a project that aims to do the risk assessment coupling fire and radioactivity. So, what would happen if radioactive material would burn, and how could we simulate that and how could we simulate radioactive smoke. That’s a really singular problem which I am interested to start tackling.

Me: What makes a good fire engineer? Which skills and abilities?

Oriol: First, knowledge. You need knowledge on multiple fields, from the theoretical fluid dynamics to computers to scripting to generally industrial and general engineering. Then, you need really critical mind in terms of being able to properly understand the problem. For me what is crucial, you will need to simplify a problem being still in the correct safe side. Our main task should be to limit as much as possible the safety factors we put whenever we don’t have knowledge and we have uncertainty. For me those are the key points, being able to strike a problem, in a simplified manner, still being accurate and correct.

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CERN fire engineering team with the guests from DESY (Germany) and Lund University

Me: Any message for the current and future IMFSE students?

Oriol: Profit well from these two years, because they are really enriching and you can take a lot from them. Not only on knowledge but try to take as much as possible in all domains. Then, keep up all the contacts you make during those two years, because they will be a great tool for your future career.

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