Alberto PORRAS VÁZQUEZ, Ingénieur R&D chez ZF Wind Power
Merci beaucoup d'avoir accepté l'interview
Could you give us an overview of yourself and your academic background?
The first thing I would like to highlight is that, due to different circumstances in my life, I was fortunate enough to move around the globe and live in different countries, where I was able to study and submerge in their culture. I am originally from Spain, but I was raised in Germany during my youth. Several years after moving back to my home country, my family moved to the Pittsburgh area (USA) were I attended Mt. Lebanon High School during freshman and sophomore years. However, I finished high school in Spain, after which I enrolled in a double degree in Industrial and Mechanical Engineering between UJI, in Spain, and INSA de Lyon, in France. During this time, I did a half-year internship at the BP Oil refinery in Castellón (Spain), where I learned from firsthand the diverse tasks of a reliability engineer, while starting to get a grasp on how a company of such kind and size is run daily. Concurrently, I was also involved in various projects at university, touching topics such as programming, automation and gear transmissions.
About to end my studies at university, and being attracted to anything related to generating and spreading scientific knowledge, I was trying to find a career path to follow. Eventually, I embarked on an industrial CIFRE thesis with SKF and INSA de Lyon, where I would spend the following three plus years studying the effects of oil starvation on large-size spinning contacts, from both a numerical and experimental standpoint. The relevance of my study lied in the fact that I was working on a topic in which little to no people had previously work with and, therefore, limited information about it was published at the time.
Having successfully defended my thesis, I decided to start a postdoc with SKF on a closely related subject, with the goal in mind to still be involved with research on an industrial level. In this case, I worked on finding appropriate combinations of bearing properties and oils to extend runtimes when bearings were faced with loss of lubrication issues in aerospace applications. I only managed to work on this fascinating project for only a few months, as soon after I was approached by ZF Wind Power and decided to make the switch completely to the industry, leaving academia behind. And this leads us to the current moment, where I work in Belgium as a Bearing Technology Engineer for ZF Wind Power.
Could you explain to us how your PhD thesis has helped you in your current position?
As a Bearing Technology Engineer, I mainly work in the R&D department. In my role, amongst other things, I focus on managing the information that we get out from our test rigs, ensure these are operating correctly and plan future experiments. While the topic of my PhD thesis differs from that of the professional activities I’m currently involved with, I do not believe that the experience was in vain. The time I spent preparing my thesis, I acquired a certain mindset and discipline to carry out tasks in a very specific way, which I would otherwise not have had. It also came together with a set of tools which have become quite handy with time, namely, how to look at problems from a distance, to be autonomous and open-minded and think out-of-the-box while looking for solutions, as well as patient and resilient when faced with adversities. Moreover, as a scientist or researcher you are expected to absorb and handle large amounts of information and be capable to distinguish the relevant data from that which you can omit. This is also something you definitely train on a daily basis during a PhD thesis, in addition to learning how and where to look for the information you need. On a much personal level, you gain a valuable network of professionals along the way, be it in the form of friends or colleagues you meet at work, in congresses or in similar events, who you can always rely upon for fruitful discussions.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about starting a thesis?
First and foremost, I would recommend someone to have a set goal in mind before starting a PhD and answer a few, but relevant, questions to himself: why am I planning on enrolling in a PhD? What do I expect to accomplish at the end of it? Do I want my work to focus on academia or in the industry and, if it is the latter case, is a PhD necessary for my expected role, or even useful? Am I doing a PhD for the right reasons? Pursuing a PhD is neither easy nor something meant for everyone. Above anything, you should choose a topic that you like and motivates you, something that you can be proud of, because you will be putting all your effort on it for at least three years.
If possible, you should also select a supervisor you can trust, as he will be responsible to mentor, guide and support you during this time.
Likewise, it is important to always stay positive and not to get discouraged or stressed by things not going the right way, it is expected to go through those hardships, but you will eventually overcome them. Set short-term goals that are easy to achieve and plan your next steps to the best possible extent; time goes by quickly without you noticing.
Regardless of the tough times, finishing a PhD is a rewarding experience: work hard, learn, make friends and do not forget to have fun too.