Our 11th Integrative Think Tank was delivered in partnership with the multinational telecoms company BT, and the Centre for Photonics and Photonic Materials, based in the Department of Physics at the University of Bath. ITTs take challenges posed by partners and reformulate them into mathematical questions that underpin long-term, collaborative research projects.

Challenges brought to the ITT included how to optimise multi-layer feedback methods in networks; how to leverage customer relationships for net promoter score prediction; how to understand surface roughness scattering and loss along fibres; and how to accurately measure distances with multi-wavelength interferometry.

Future research collaborations

Following the ITT, students write up technical reports, which explore the formulation of the problems in more depth. Often ideas developed at ITTs become collaborative PhD research for our SAMBa cohort, either by a SAMBa student picking up the project, or by recruitment of a student directly onto the project. ITTs lead to deep and long-term relationships with partners, with projects often materialising sometime after the end of the ITT. Recent examples of joint PhDs that have been supported are with NPL (who were partners at ITT7 in January 2018) and Diamond (from ITT9 in January 2019).

David Bird, who participated in the ITT from the Centre for Photonics and Photonic Materials said: “I was very impressed by the energy and enthusiasm of all the participants, and especially the excellent PhD students. It was great to see the variety of challenges being tackled, and the opportunities for longer-term research projects. My team explored the loss mechanisms in optical fibres and made some very useful progress which will hopefully be taken forward as a collaborative PhD project.”

Excellent student training

The primary purpose of ITTs is to provide training and experience for our students of problem formulation in collaboration with partners outside of mathematical sciences. The skills students learn in communicating with non-specialists, developing research within the framework of an application or business, and presenting their ideas succinctly are invaluable both to the first year cohort, who are yet to decide on their PhD research, and to students further through their PhD who are beginning to look at jobs in academia or industry.

Fengpei Wang, a first year SAMBa student said: “I enjoyed the ITT a lot and it is a great opportunity for the industry partners, researchers in other areas and us to talk. It gave a platform for us to get experience in how to translate real-life needs into mathematical language, and how to apply theoretical methods in real settings. Our team explored a data analysis challenge from BT, and it was exciting that we formulated it into mathematical form we can contribute to.”

Tom Pennington, now in his final year of PhD research said: “ITT11 was a fun event packed with interesting real-world problems. As always, I enjoyed working in a small team where ideas arose which I wouldn't normally think of on my own. Now that I'm coming to the end of my PhD, I've also realised how useful the ITTs have been as a training experience for both developing my research project and as a foundation for future career opportunities.”

Future ITTs

ITT12 will bring back our partners from ITT4, the Rheumatology department from Bath’s Royal United Hospital, and introduces new partners Rolls Royce.

You can find out more about the ITT model, and read about previous ITTs, on the SAMBa webpage.