UL engineering grad looks to prevent future flooding

26 Dec 2014

Deirdre Ryan, graduate engineer from the University of Limerick

Deirdre Ryan, a graduate engineer from the University of Limerick, is working with Punch Consulting to futureproof Limerick’s flood defences, thanks to an Irish Research Council award.

In February this year, parts of Limerick City were severely affected by floodwaters when the River Shannon burst its banks. High tide and gale-force winds combined to make a not-so-perfect storm, resulting in homes and cars being destroyed and many residents needed to be rescued in boats.

It’s a scenario that no one would want to happen again, and engineer Deirdre Ryan is helping to strengthen the flood defences to protect Limerick for decades to come.

Future Human

A graduate of the University of Limerick, she’s working with engineering firm Punch Consulting through the Irish Research Council Employment Based Postgraduate Programme, which brings together academic researchers and industry to tackle real-world problems.

Futureproofing flood defences

This research project between UL and Punch is called ‘Preparing the Flood Defences of Limerick City for Climate Change Events’, and it was sparked by the February flooding, explains Ryan.

“Stemming from that event, UL and my academic adviser Declan Phillips were in discussion with Punch engineers about what they could do with flood defences in Limerick to futureproof them to ensure this wouldn’t happen again,” Ryan recalls.

“I was working in the area of flooding through a research project in UL already, and I was approached to know if I would have an interest in getting involved here. Having lived in Limerick I would know the area well, so I really wanted to be part of the research.”

Ryan is now working as a graduate engineer with Punch through the IRC programme. She is looking at designing changes, where needed, to river embankments to be able to cope with predicted flooding over the longer term.

“The plan is to see what will work on those defences and making sure they will be suitable for events, such that in 30 or 40 years the defences will be adequate, as well.”

As part of the project, Ryan, who studied civil engineering at UL, is looking at recent trends in floodwater changes and data that predict its course over coming decades.

“The floodwater has been rising, and we want to check the predictions to make sure any futureproofing design can handle them,” she says.

Linking academia and industry through research

The IRC recently announced it was funding 48 such partnerships between post-graduate researchers and industry to the tune of €4.5m through its Employment Based Postgraduate Programme, which is now in its second year.

Other research projects to receive funding cover topics such as optimising energy-efficient waste-water treatment facilities, work on surface treatment for the European Space Agency, risk assessment for urban development and planning, stress reduction through gaming, and developing community engagement strategies to reduce HIV transmission.

At a ceremony to announce this round of awards, chair of the IRC Prof Orla Feely said the council was all about funding excellent people with excellent ideas and thereby deriving impact for the Irish economy and society.

“There are few better ways to ensure impact for the economy than by engaging closely as we do in this scheme with employers,” she said at the event, which took place earlier this month aboard the MV Cill Áirne docked on the River Liffey.

“The company benefits from access to what the higher education institutions have to offer in research, we believe that the student benefits from the close engagement with the company that sets them on a track to the employment-facing skills that we know they are going to need, and it enlivens their research with ideas that are inspired by current problems faced by industry. The higher education institute also benefits from that close engagement with industry.”

Variety of organisations

Employers currently participating in the Employment Based Postgraduate Programme include IBM, enBIO, Oxymem, Galvanic, Future Analytics, Merchants Quay Ireland and Tusla – The Child and Family Agency. Feely noted the programme is part of a wider suite of engagement between the IRC and industry, and she welcomed that many different types and sizes of organisations get involved.

“In the early days it was very much the multinational companies that were coming to us – and coming back and back again, showing how much they valued this engagement – and more recently we are seeing small and medium enterprises coming to us and we regard this as vital,” said Feely.

“(The Employment Based Postgraduate Programme) is a scheme that is flexible and agile, it is easy to access and for many companies it can represent their first toe in the water of research engagement, we hope the first of many. We are also delighted to see increasingly that social and community organisations are coming to us for this scheme.”

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication