David Mba: linking academia with industry

Materials World magazine
4 Nov 2014

Simon Frost speaks to the Dean of London South Bank University’s School of Engineering about the link between universities and industry.

Industry is key to academia,’ says Professor David Mba. It was hands-on industrial experience that led him down the academic route while completing his undergraduate degree in Aerospace Engineering at the University of Hertfordshire. ‘During the summer I was working on aircraft at Hatfield Aerodrome – riveting, fitting, doing practical work, and it inspired me because I was always wondering how I could do it better,’ he says. ‘To be able to not only do the calculations but improve them was what drove me towards research.’

Mba went on to study for his PhD in Mechanical Engineering at Cranfield University, for which he achieved a Gold Medal and was offered a faculty job. ‘From there, I carried on in academia and eventually got my chair about four years ago, but it all started with doing some practical work.’ He was recently appointed Dean of the newly established School of Engineering at London South Bank University, bringing with him a wealth of experience in readying the next generation of engineers.

Hand in hand

Already, he is set on strengthening the ties between academia and industry. ‘I want to get the industrialists more involved in defining the curriculum. We have to keep ensuring that our graduates are employable – that what we’re teaching is suited to the needs of industry. Academics can very quickly go off on their own path and forget about the reality of application-based teaching, but industry should align the work that academics do. The two go hand in hand and the interaction must always be close to ensure relevance from both sides.’

Professional development is at the core of Mba’s philosophy, and he runs PD courses for undergraduate and postgraduate students, accredited by the appropriate professional bodies. ‘As well as accreditation, we also develop bespoke programmes for specific areas of industry – right now, for example, we’re doing a short course on reservoir engineering. Participating in these courses is something that industry acknowledges.’

As a Fellow of IMechE, Mba has mentored undergraduates, postgraduates and fledgling engineers to accreditation, as well as working on the Institute’s technical committees to develop training programmes and raise awareness, travelling around the country to deliver seminars. Similarly, with the British Institute of Non-Destructive Testing, Mba has developed training programmes for Non-Destructive Testing practitioners to become accredited.

Getting there

He separates his advice to students preparing for industry into three strands. For undergraduates, it’s a case of making sure it’s what they want to do. ‘The course will become very challenging, and there’s nothing worse than realising it’s not what you want to do at that stage. Once you decide it is for you, there’s enough support in any university to help you achieve it.’

In relation to the taught postgraduates, he advises, ‘Work hard and get as much knowledge as you can. It’s the last chance you’ll get to spend time improving your technical skills before you implement them.’ Finally, he warns that research is about perseverance. ‘When you’re working through a PhD or MPhil you will hit a brick wall at some stage – there will always be challenges that you don’t anticipate. You just have to keep at it.’