An interview with... Dr Sam Cocking

Why did you decide to study Structural Engineering?

“I’ve been interested in design and the built environment for a long time. As a child, my nearest playground was next to an impressive railway viaduct and a set of curious-looking masonry piers that are all that’s left of Brunel’s original timber viaduct. This was probably the first piece of infrastructure that grabbed my attention. To begin with, this manifested as a broad interest in architecture but, over time, I realised I was most drawn to structural design. As a teenager I did some work experience with the civil engineering team at Hampshire County Council, and that made it clear that Structural Engineering was the right course for me.”

Before joining the DARe Hub, what other research projects were you involved in?

“My research interests are broadly in structural health monitoring, historic structures, and structural materials. My PhD used fibre-optic sensing to study a 150-year-old masonry railway bridge. I’ve also researched the wind loading on stone pinnacles and the early-age behaviour of concretes, to give a couple of examples.” 

What does a typical day as a DARe researcher look like for you? 

“The great thing about DARe is that my research on infrastructure monitoring gets integrated into the wider context of decarbonisation and climate resilience. I spend a lot of time thinking about this bigger picture with other DARe researchers, as we come up with frameworks and models that can capture this breadth while maintaining the depth and detail of the domains we originally come from. Other than this, I’m still involved in monitoring projects and spend my time analysing and interpreting the data that these generate.”

In your opinion, what are some key challenges in structural engineering and achieving decarbonisation goals? 

“To achieve decarbonisation, we must not only minimise carbon emissions in new construction, through more efficient designs or novel, low-carbon materials, but also avoid the need for construction in the first place by making greater use of our existing infrastructure and built environment. It can be challenging to demonstrate that existing structures will remain adequate under new loading, especially when their history is not well known. This can be addressed by structural monitoring, but also by increasing the awareness of historical design practices among today’s engineers.”

Could you share some innovative approaches or technologies that are being used to improve adaptability and resilience in transport infrastructure projects? 

“There is exciting potential for data-rich monitoring strategies to be used on today’s transport infrastructure projects. This might involve embedding sensors during the construction of a bridge, so that its behaviour can be tracked over its entire life, or the development of algorithms that process large quantities of sensor data to visualise key performance metrics for asset management decision making. These approaches have been trialled successfully in real-world infrastructure projects, using technologies such as fibre-optic sensing. In both cases, understanding performance in detail will be key if we are to project this forward and predict infrastructure’s resilience in a changing climate.”

What advice would you give to other early career researchers or doctoral students, interested in pursuing a career in with a focus on decarbonisation, adaptability and/or resilience? 

“In many ways, this is an exciting time to be researching these topics. There is an increasing understanding of their importance and the need to act with urgency, which should encourage us all to work on closing the gap between academic research and practical adoption of innovation. My main advice is to make the most of opportunities to collaborate closely with industry. This will help to maintain the real-world applicability of your research, and the potential for impact that it can lead to is very rewarding. At the same time, remember to invest in your own resilience. These are difficult challenges and solving them will be a marathon, not a sprint!”

"This is an exciting time to be researching these topics. There is an increasing understanding of their importance and the need to act with urgency..."

Dr Sam Cocking

Sam is a Research Associate at the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (CSIC), in the Cambridge University Engineering Department, with research interests including structural health monitoring, historic buildings and ageing infrastructure, and masonry and concrete structures.

On DARe, Sam will be exploring how novel sensing methods can unlock new understanding of the behaviour and deterioration of materials and structures, and how such technologies can help to improve decision making for the operation and maintenance of infrastructure assets.