I spend a lot of time with jet engines as part of my PhD, trying to improve them. It’s a Concorde engine – it’s a demonstration model used to show where the various components of the engine are located, and it sits on the ground floor of the institution where I work.
Jet-engine turbines can reach temperatures of 2,000 °C. I’m looking for ways to use less air to cool them and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. I test the performance of films covering various engine-blade designs in a one-metre-long research tunnel at one of 20 research facilities at the institute.
As a PhD student, I get a limited amount of time with the rig, which I use to test whether our models are accurate. A simulated turbine is wired with tiny, flexible tubes to monitor pressure, as well as tiny temperature sensors.
The set-up leaves enough room for the computer to sit on the table to record the data.
The machine is getting deaf and I often do experiments that involve ultraviolet light. Everyone has to wear ear protection and goggles. To make sure my experiments run smoothly, I like to process and analyze the data early in the morning, late in the evening, or on weekends when collaborators are largely absent. I’ve found that small successes always come through over the weekend.
Since I left Kenya four years ago to start my PhD, I have relied on a strong support system during tough times. Some personal rituals help me focus. I play high-energy dance music – including bongo, or Swahili hip hop.
Getting my mind in sync, just like when I’m running, helps me relax and solve problems when something isn’t working.
I also like to keep my work area simple and clutter free to avoid distractions. I don’t have any posters or any other personal touch. It’s just me, my tune and rig.
Oddly enough, as my experiments come to an end, I feel like I’ve developed Stockholm syndrome. I’ve spent so much time here, yet I realize I’ve formed some kind of attachment to the place—and I know I’ll miss it when I finally leave.