Humans of Bristol University

Dr. Mark Schenk

This interview was carried out by Corrie Macleod, a Student Fellow.

Dr. Mark Schenk is a Lecturer in Aerospace Engineering. His research area focuses on the application of origami in science. His BoB lecture ‘Folding the Future: How Origami is Transforming Engineering’ will explore the fascinating link between the Japanese Art and Engineering. I caught up with Mark yesterday to talk about his research and his path into academia…

Taken on the 7th of March 2019 in Dr. Mark Schenk’s office

Tell us about your upcoming BoB lecture, Give us a pitch!

It’s going to be about origami! Most people think of it as an art, they mostly think about those  familiar paper crane structures that are a classic example of origami.

I want to show that there is more to it than that! There is science involved. In fact, origami has an important application in engineering. Civil Engineering, Aerospace Engineering… What I want people to get out of my lecture is that it’s a lot more than just child’s play, it’s more than just paper folding. That’s my pitch for the talk!

How did you first get interested in the topic?

When I started my PhD.  Basically, I was given a rough topic area,  then I was told to go away and come up with a proposal. I was also influenced by mum’s love of origami. She used to do them quite a lot when I was a kid. My supervisor’s area was in structural engineering and it was really by chance that these two fit together.

Had I not been exposed to origami as a child, I don’t know if I would have done by PhD that way. Obviously I didn’t just make my childhood hobby my research, as they are two very different things, but it was great to find how they linked.

My interest were in deployable structures, structures that can package up and unfold… My research group seemed interested and that really led the rest of my research. I guess it just came out of the air and fell into place nicely, really!

Are you going to do an origami demo during your talk?

Not a demo, but I’m thinking of bringing this structure up.

(Holds up red structure shown in image)

I made this with one of my my PhD students. This is the classic pattern, it’s also very big. It’s a flat sheet,or at least, it was a flat sheet which was cut and folded with our laser cutter. This is often used in retractable satellite structures that are sent into space!  It’s fascinating because the structure can be folded very compactly but can also be extended.

Do you think this structure would ever be applied to housing designs in the future?

There are people who are working on that area. I’m not sure about housing as you have to take into consideration different materials and structures… but I know, for instance, there are people who work on these structures in the US army, they’re using these great origami principles to develop rapid deployable shelters!

As an academic, what do you think about the balance of research and teaching?

I think I need both. I don’t think I could do just pure teaching because I do like the freedom that comes with research and investigation. I also love supervising projects with fourth year students and teaching my undergraduate courses. There’s always something new to experience and something interesting to learn from both!

What’s the most rewarding thing about teaching?

There are two parts to my answer. I love being able to share what I discover with people who also share the same passions and interests that I do. I also love seeing my students get interested in the topic and understanding these concepts. Seeing their faces when the ‘penny drops’ is great.

I don’t know how big your cohord is, but I know that in a lecture hall with 100 aerospace engineering students, you can’t always see every single student’s reactions… But, when you do see them grasping concepts and understanding, it’s truly great.

I’ve been in Bristol for 4 years now and seeing that first full cohort change from year 1 to year 4 is amazing.  To see how much my 4th years developed and changed from the first time I met them when they first got to Bristol is great!

I also learned that the first years tend to ask the toughest questions. They ask questions about our teaching as well as our mindset. It’s refreshing to get asked “How do you really know what you know?” “Why is that the case?”

I sometimes have to think about it and get back to them later!

When you were a student, did you know you wanted to become an academic?

I think I kind of rolled into becoming an academic rather than being inspired by a particular person or moment. Back at my university in the Netherlands I just knew I was good at maths and physics and that engineering would fit for me. I was right!

Do you think students get pressured into worrying about the future?

There certainly are external pressures, like family expectations, university rankings etc… It is valuable to think about your future, of course, but take time to explore your options a bit before going down a certain route. You already made big decisions before university with your subject choice at A-levels and university, you are on track already.

Engineering students do a lot of summer internships because it’s seen as an expectation for them to secure a job…  Of course it is important, but you should also use those summers to get out of the house and enjoy yourself, because you won’t have as much time when you’re actually working. Just remember to enjoy the experience!

What were thoughts on your future when you were a university student?

I picked engineering because I was good at math and physics, but I never really thought I was going to become something specific. I just really enjoyed learning. The engineering degree just seemed to be a good fit and I’m so glad I followed that path! As a student, I didn’t really plan on becoming an engineer, but now that I am an engineer, I can’t imagine myself NOT being one!

Do you have any advice for students?

If you’re not sure what you want to be at age 18, that’s fine, because you don’t have to know. Everybody is different.  Of course, degree systems can make it difficult to switch subjects, but you have to remember that you are not defined by your degree. There are plenty of aerospace engineers who then go work in completely different, fulfilling industries.

No one expects every student to be a subject geek when they come into university. If you come in focused, knowing what you want,  that’s good, that’s excellent! But, at the same time, if you come in saying you don’t know what you enjoy, that’s important too. That’s why you’re here. To discuss, to learn and to discover. That’s when you’ll learn what your interest is.

What do you do to relax? I noticed you have a bike in this office.

I don’t actually bike… This was a broken bicycle I was supposed to use for one of my classes… But I never got around to fixing it!

So, to relax, I really do like to walk. I find that it is therapeutic to just step outside, leave the office and explore the city. I also walk to work every day and that walk always helps me clear my mind.

What’s your favourite thing to do in Bristol?

Go to North Street in Southville! Quite a few lecturers go there actually. On Saturdays, there are so many things to do. It’s perfect. You can explore bakeries, go to the butchers, local grocery stores and cafés or catch a show at the Tobacco Factory!

I also would recommend going to the Bristol Balloon Fiesta in the Summer. I know that a lot of students are probably home for the summer, but if you get the opportunity, head to the Downs and watch it! It’s absolutely beautiful.


Watch Mark Schenk’s Talk below…


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