Abigail Berhane

Back Story: Abigail Berhane, ‘Most of us have come a long way to get to this point’

Image credit: Sofia Medina Cassillas

TV presenter Shini Somara meets Abigail Berhane, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge Whittle Laboratory, studying the effects of surface roughness on turbine blade aerodynamics.

Shini Somara: What is your PhD research focus?

Abigail Berhane: Approximately one-third of the loss in an aeroengine turbine comes from the ‘aerodynamic friction’ present between the blade surface and fluid. This is also known as ‘skin friction’, which is influenced by the surface roughness of the blades. How surface roughness and skin friction relate is currently unknown. Surfaces of turbine blades can be really non-uniform, making it challenging to measure and predict.

My research involves relating any surface present in a turbine blade to a given loss. This is useful for turbine designers and aerodynamicists in improving efficiency of current and new designs, and the use of new materials. I hope my research will be used as a guide to understand how roughness can affect turbine performance, because as soon as an engine is used, its surface roughness changes because of hot air and fuel mixtures, volcanic ash, dust and other environmental flight conditions. This research could impact all stages of a gas turbine, from design and development to life-cycle management.

SS: What sparked your interest in the aerodynamics of turbine blades?

AB: At school, I had always been interested in physics and computing. One of my best experiences was being able to write a 2D steady-flow-solver CFD code during a summer internship. This made me realise that I wanted to do engineering and specifically aerodynamics.

I also took part in Career Ready, a programme which gives school children an opportunity to look into certain career fields. I chose engineering because I was excited by the possibilities. As a result, I was given a mentor who helped me set up a few internships, one of them being at Arup.  

During my undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at Sussex University, I became interested in turbomachinery and fluid mechanics. After that I applied for the Centre of Doctoral Training (CDT) where I completed an MRes, which has then led to my PhD.
Alongside academia, I have also loved the television programmes of Professor Brian Cox. Like him, I would like to lecture on really complex physics topics, making them accessible for youngsters. Learning of his PhD inspired me to pursue mine. I have also enjoyed other tech shows, such as the ‘Gadget Man’ show with Richard Ayoade and ‘Top Gear’.

SS: What positive experiences have you had as someone ‘under-represented’ in engineering?

AB: Currently, there are five of us in my cohort – three male and two female. However, the lab is male-dominated and as a Black woman, I am under-represented. Despite this, I really enjoy our regular ‘coffee-table meet-ups’ in the Whittle Lab, where people are encouraged to share their ideas. It’s honestly such an inspiring gathering.

Overall, the Whittle Lab has a great awareness of the importance of diversity and inclusion. In recent years, there has been a lot more education around these issues across many universities. I haven’t had issues with my colleagues, although some instances crop up outside our lab. Thankfully, I have a couple of close friends who speak up for me, if I don’t speak up for myself.

I have received a lot of support from my lab faculty, particularly my supervisor Dr John Longley and my advisor and Whittle director Professor Rob Miller. They have shown great interest in my research and discussions with them always re-energises me.
In 2019, I was awarded the Zonta International Amelia Earhart Fellowship, and since then have attended events which bring together and empower women in aerospace.

SS: What advice do you have for any women wanting to follow in your footsteps?

AB: Growing and evolving in one’s career is extremely satisfying, especially when your work can contribute to the betterment of society. This is what continuously drives me along my career.

However, I also have to be careful of the standards I set for myself. I can sometimes compare myself too much to my colleagues, who are nothing like me, or I can be too focused on future goals and ambitions. This way of thinking can often leave me feeling deflated, in a hurry or that I could be doing or achieving more.

My advice to other women in engineering would be that it’s good to push oneself, but it’s also important to enjoy what we are doing and to acknowledge our accomplishments and contributions to the industry. Most of us have come a long way to get to this point, despite the odds, and we need to always remember that.

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