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Day in the Life – Professor Andrew Ball

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Name: Professor Andrew Ball


Job title: Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research, Innovation and Knowledge Exchange, University of Huddersfield, and Chair of 3M BIC Board


Tell us about your career journey:

I did my undergraduate degree at Leeds and my PhD at Manchester. I then worked in industry for a couple of years, developing sensor systems and signal processing algorithms for fault detection and diagnosis of (amongst other things) large marine propulsion systems. In 1992 I took the Shell Lectureship in Maintenance Engineering at the University of Manchester and worked my way up to Head of Manchester School of Engineering.

I was very closely involved in the 2004 Manchester-UMIST merger and, with that successfully delivered, I left Manchester in 2007 to become Pro-Vice-Chancellor at Huddersfield; I’ve been in this role ever since. I have also been the Chair of the 3M BIC Board since the company (HEIC Ltd) was set up in 2012.


Describe a typical day at work:

The working day starts early for me, with my alarm going off at 4:28am (don’t ask why not 4:30…). I leave home at 5:15am and am at my desk in Huddersfield shortly after 7am. I don’t get chance to read a newspaper, so I make the most of the Today Programme on Radio 4 from 6-7 – this sets me up for the day.

The first hour of my day is emails, with meetings usually scheduled from 8am onwards. I have a range of responsibilities in my capacity as Pro-Vice-Chancellor, but they can all really be distilled down to being the institutional strategic lead for all matters of Research, Innovation and Knowledge Exchange. As such, I chair or sit on a range of committees from University Research Committee to Senate, from Innovation Committee to University Knowledge Exchange Group and from Vice Chancellor’s Executive Group to the University’s Senior Leadership Team.

I also spend a lot of time meeting external organisations who either already work with us in matters of research or who are exploring the possibility of doing so. I’d say that about half of these meetings are on site and half are off. I really enjoy this aspect of my role because I get to see some amazing facilities, all across the world.

I’m very lucky that my Pro-Vice-Chancellor role allows me to remain fully research active as Professor of Diagnostic Engineering, and I spend around 2 days per week pushing forwards my research activities which focus on the detection, diagnosis and prognosis of faults in complex machinery.

I try to leave the University by 3:30pm to miss the worst of the traffic on the drive home, but I schedule phone calls at 30min intervals for the 2-hour drive back to High Bentham and it’s amazing how much productive work I get done during the drive home.


What keeps you motivated at work?

Two things: firstly, the continual rise in research standing that the University is achieving and secondly my personal research activities which I undertake in close collaboration with colleagues in the Centre for Efficiency and Performance Engineering in the School of Computing and Engineering.


The most exciting thing about your job?

The clear evidence-based transition of the University from being ‘Research Active’ in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, through ‘Research Led’ in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF2014), to being in the Top 50 for Research Power in REF2021, and hopefully to being ‘Research Intensive’ in the next REF, which will be around 2028.


The most challenging?

It has to be the continual development and implementation of mechanisms and interventions to maximise the research performance of the University and all the staff within it. The range of our research subject areas is huge, from contemporary music to pharmacology and from precision measurement to linguistics. What works to stimulate and support research in history may well be very different to that in skin science; every area is different, with different nuances and needs. The more the University progresses in research, the more targeted and bespoke the central interventions and support mechanisms need to be on a field-by-field basis. This requires ever closer attention and ever greater ingenuity.


Time of the day you most creative or inspired?

I’m more of a morning person.


Proudest career moment?

Probably graduating my 100th PhD student. I’m now at 118 PhD successes and still counting!


Best piece of advice you’ve been given?

The best piece of advice I’ve ever been given is that advice is free, and that you don’t have to take it! 😊


What innovations should we look out for in your industry?

In Tim Thornton’s response to this question, he talked about innovations in the world of Higher Education so, rather than repeat some of these answers, I’ll give you my opinions about innovations in my field of research. I think that we will see a continually increasing recognition from engineers like myself that many of the techniques and approaches that we use to solve engineering problems can actually be applied with great success to a much wider range of issues.

I’ll give you a quick example: one of the techniques that Prof Fengshou Gu and I have pioneered over many years is a tool for automatically detecting tiny changes in the functioning of a highly complex system. The method uses a hybrid approach which is partly data-driven and partly first principles modelling. The combined approach allows context to be incorporated within a data driven method and hence it achieves very high levels of real-time abnormality detection.

We have used our method very successfully across the widest possible range of engineering applications but have also shown its potential in things as disparate as the identification of changes in the critical signs of patients on an intensive care ward, the assessment of terrorist and hacker risk in large civil installations, the detection of BSE in cattle, and even the prediction of foreign exchange currency rates. With a bit more attention on the last of these, I might be able to retire before I’m 70…


Out of the office…?

My wife (Andrea) and I run a successful sheep farm at the top end of the Forest of Bowland and this keeps me sane, or so they say. If you’d have told me at the age of 18 that when I was in my mid-fifties I’d be married to a farmer, I think I’d have run a mile! 😊

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