School's 150th anniversary year concludes with panel discussion exploring the future of engineering

L-R: Professor Mark Miodownik (UCL) chairs a panel discussion with Brian Gerardot (Heriot-Watt University), Colin McInnes (University of Glasgow) and Susan Rosser (University of Edinburgh)
L-R: Professor Mark Miodownik (UCL) chairs a panel discussion with Brian Gerardot (Heriot-Watt University), Colin McInnes (University of Glasgow) and Susan Rosser (University of Edinburgh)
On Monday 4 March, over 100 guests gathered for a special public panel discussion to explore emerging engineering technologies and their future role in society.

Organised jointly with the Royal Academy of Engineering, this was the final event in the School’s year-long series of celebrations marking 150 years since the University was granted the UK’s first Regius Chair of Engineering.

Chairs in Emerging Technologies

The event also marked a second significant anniversary: ten years since the Royal Academy of Engineering Chairs in Emerging Technologies programme was founded.

The programme is designed to identify and support global research visionaries developing technologies with the potential to bring economic and social benefit to the UK. Significantly, this was the first event of its kind to bring together the recently appointed Scotland-based Chairs, to showcase their work in the following specialisms:

  • Professor Susan Rosser (University of Edinburgh) – Engineered cells for combined diagnostics and therapeutics
  • Professor Brian Gerardot (Heriot-Watt University) – Integrated two-dimensional classical and quantum photonics
  • Professor Colin McInnes (University of Glasgow) – Space

Introduced by the School’s Chair of Future Infrastructure, Professor Gordon Masterton, and hosted by radio and television broadcaster Professor Mark Miodownik MBE, the panel discussion explored emerging technologies in areas that underpin society, from mass communications to satellite technology and healthcare.

Speed-of-light computing

Professor Brian Gerardot of Heriot-Watt University opened the debate with an explanation of his work to bring lightning-fast information processing to mobile and computing technologies, using photonic chips manufactured from revolutionary ultra-thin 2d engineered materials.

By conducting light, rather than electricity, these photonic chips promise to break the speed barrier currently imposed by transistor-based computing technologies and “revolutionise how efficient classical computing can be, and create new quantum technologies that harness the power of light”.

Revolutionising space technologies

Space satellites lie unseen behind many aspects of our daily lives, from high-bandwith mass communications and climate and weather monitoring, to the satnav technology embedded in our cars and mobile phones.

Professor Colin McInnes of the University of Glasgow explained his work to create the “next generation” of space technologies at both micro and macro levels: from miniature satellites capable of closely monitoring the space environment, to satellites which can function as 3d printers in space. Professor McInnes’s work carries a raft of exciting applications across climate monitoring, green energy and space travel.

Engineering human cells to target disease

The School’s Professor Susan Rosser concluded the debate by describing her work to engineer human cells capable of sensing, diagnosing and treating disease. These intelligent cells would be implanted in the body and equipped with the ability to provide timely therapeutic responses to the onset of serious illnesses including cancer.

Professor Rosser explained how this research would break new ground in healthcare, which is currently making limited use of immunotherapies such as CAR-T cell therapy. The costliness of such therapies, which rely on a highly individualised approach to bio-engineering, could potentially be overcome by engineering ‘generic’ human DNA which could be used in anyone without triggering an individual immune response.

Engineering in society

The panel took audience questions, including several on the ethical implications and societal impact of such advanced and complex engineering technologies.

Professor McInnes observed that “all of engineering is about societal impact and benefits to society, and one of the key challenges for the 21st century is engaging with the public and co-creating technology and the future that we would collectively like to live in”.

Professor Rosser spoke about her team’s keenness to engage with social scientists, schools and museums about their work to help them “question why we’re doing it and how we’re doing it”, and Professor Gerardot agreed “it’s the public who decide whether something is going to be useful or not”.

Professor Jason Reese

Our Regius Chair of Engineering, Jason Reese, was to be among four Chairs in Emerging Technologies taking part in the panel discussion, but very sadly was taken ill and passed away on Friday 8 March.

Professor Reese was the ninth incumbent of the University's Regius Chair of Engineering since the position was granted to the University by Queen Victoria in 1868, and was a key member of the team that planned our School's anniversary celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of this significant position.

Read an obituary celebrating Professor Reese’s life and legacy.

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