#FaradayPathways Ferran Brosa Planella, University of Warwick
Ferran Brosa Planella is an Assistant Professor at the Mathematics Institute, University of Warwick, & Co-Founder at Ionworks. Here, Ferran discusses the rewards of sitting at the boundary of maths and engineering and the importance of researchers putting themselves in the right place at the right time to take the next steps in their career…
“As a kid I wanted to be an inventor so, when it came to choosing an undergraduate degree, I was thinking about Industrial Engineering. However, I was good at maths, so I ended up applying for a double degree in Mathematics and Industrial Engineering at the Centre de Formació Interdisciplinària Superior, a programme of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya that allowed me to pursue both degrees at the same time.
“When it came to choosing PhDs, I ended up quite by chance in the CDT in Industrially Focused Mathematical Modelling at the University of Oxford, where I learned how to apply maths to industry-relevant modelling problems – which is what I like. My PhD was with Colin Please and Robert Van Gorder on the solidification of alloys, in collaboration with Elkem ASA.”
Transitioning to a post doc in engineering
In the final year of his PhD, Ferran applied for many post-doc positions before he landed a job at WMG, University of Warwick, working on battery modelling in an engineering-based group. He hasn’t looked back since.
“One failed job application at Warwick led to a second opportunity in the characterisation, modelling and control group at WMG. I could tell from the interview that Dhammika Widanalage was someone I would like to work with. By chance my PhD supervisor had done a lot of research on batteries so I knew it would be an interesting research area.”
As part of that position, Ferran joined the Faraday Institution Multi-scale Modelling (MSM) project in October 2018 as it was growing quickly. Within his first month he spent a week with all the modellers at Oxford and a three day long all-hands meeting in Daventry, where he found it helpful to meet and network with everyone working on the project. The modelling project includes modellers and experimentalists, chemists, engineers and physicists as well as mathematicians, each bringing experience in neighbouring fields. Ferran sees being able to communicate with people from other disciplines as key. He continues:
“I did a lot of teaching and supervision early in my career – during my PhD – which has really helped. It feeds into the need to be able to effectively explain something you know a lot about to non-specialists – such an important skill for any academic working across disciplines.
“Collaborative working is so rewarding. For me, that has been epitomised by working on the PyBaMM open-source battery modelling program that has been embraced by MSM and that MSM has helped to grow. It’s been fantastic – and has presented lots of chances to keep collaborating with my PhD peers from Oxford.”
The PyBaMM community was awarded the Faraday Institution Collaboration Award in 2021, recognising its achievements in developing a valuable open-source battery modelling tool that has gained a global userbase and benefits researchers across academia and industry. Watch the video to find out more.
“I really enjoy being part of the Multi-scale Modelling project. It’s such a big project. There are so many people to connect with, all of whom are friendly – which was important in the early days when I was new to batteries.
“Being part of the Faraday Institution has brought many opportunities and the funding to be able to pursue conference attendance and training. I’ve been a member of the Early Career Researcher (ECR) Committee since 2021 that has delivered initiatives such as the 2022 ECR Conference. These are helping to shape the careers of other early career researchers, which has been rewarding to see.”
Stepping up the rungs of the academic ladder
In early 2022, and encouraged by Dhammika, Ferran secured a position as senior research fellow at WMG, then moved to the position of Assistant Professor later the same year, this time back in a maths department at Warwick.
“The Mathematics Institute just happened to have an opening for an applied mathematician that could engage with industry and experimentalists, which sounded perfect for me. I was so grateful to my supervisor and Theo Damoulas, one of our collaborators, who provided valuable feedback during a dry run of my interview talk. They made me think about audience and purpose and I’m convinced that acting on their feedback was fundamental in my success at interview.”
What advice would Ferran give to people seeking academic positions?
“The process of securing a permanent academic job is so random. Start early. Actively seek out feedback and act on it. It’s hard, so build the resilience you will need to deal with all the knock-backs. Look for opportunities you find interesting and try to patch them together to find that job that matches your skill set.”
So, what motivates Ferran to stay in academia?
“Many a time I’ve wondered why I’m still here! I’m not sure it’s a conscious decision. It’s probably a lot to do with research freedom, the satisfaction I get from teaching and supervising, and the flexibility to choose who to collaborate with.”
Factors for career success
Ferran sees his career success as stemming from a mixture of factors:
- having a supportive supervisor;
- being in the right place at the right time;
- seizing opportunities open to him; and,
- approaching career planning with a level of strategic thought.
The University of Warwick uses a career pathway matrix that is similar to Vitae’s Researcher Development Framework, which considers four areas (i) knowledge and intellectual abilities (ii) personal effectiveness (iii) research governance and organisation (iv) engagement, influence and impact.
“Developing a vision of your career is a process and it’s easy to fall into the trap of concentrating on developing scientific knowledge and skills and neglecting the other elements,” continues Ferran. “Understanding what skills you’re trying to develop in all these areas and why they’re important to you will help.”
What’s next for Ferran?
He is rejoining the Multi-scale Modelling project as Co-investigator in April 2023 after successfully negotiating a competitive application process. He will lead research that will model battery formation processes and its impact on battery longevity, with particular focus on modelling the formation of the solid electrolyte interphase (SEI) layer.
“My existing work on MSM and PyBaMM put me in good stead when I was shaping the application. I understood and was aligned to MSM’s vision in that research area.
“With the other core members of the PyBaMM community I am a Co-Founder of Ionworks, which we set up in February 2023 as a company that industry organisations can engage with to develop the software tool further to solve industry battery modelling problems. It’s really early days but I look forward to being involved in a company that will translate academic battery modelling research into industrial impact.”
Connect with Ferran on LinkedIn.
Researcher interview published March 2023.