Matthew Allcock - fluid mechanics

For his PhD Matthew is conducting research in fluid mechanics known as magnetohydrodynamics, which aims to use mathematics describe how magnetic fluids move.

PhD researcher
  • Name: Matthew Allcock
  • Faculty: Science
  • Scholarship: University Prize Scholarships

Tell us about your background and your chosen research project.

On a windy day, as is the norm in Sheffield, outside the Hicks Building you’ll see a whirlwind created by the shape of its walls guiding the wind. In Autumn, it picks up fallen leaves to create a beautiful leafy vortex. Curiosity to try and explain such phenomena sparked my interest in the complex field of fluid mechanics, which was a highlight of my undergraduate degree in mathematics at the University of Sheffield.

Undertaking a Summer of undergraduate research inspired me to undertake a PhD in a topic in fluid mechanics known as magnetohydrodynamics, which aims to use mathematics describe how magnetic fluids move.

I now research as part of the Solar Physics and Space Plasma Research Centre at the University of Sheffield, looking into to how waves propagate in the magnetic fluid that constitutes the Sun’s atmosphere. The Sun is such an integral part of human life that it’s surprising how little we actually know about its structure, especially the structure of its atmosphere. One reason for this is that we have no way of directly measuring its properties, such as how strong the Sun’s magnetic field is.

My research involves finding waves in the Sun’s atmosphere and using them infer these properties. It’s research that requires an interesting combination of images from state-of-the-art telescopes and mathematical tools to make sense of what the images are showing.

Why did you choose to study at Sheffield?

Having spent my undergraduate years in Sheffield, I felt at home here. Most weeks you’ll catch me rock climbing, hiking, or running in the Peak District, a beautiful national park that is just a 15-minute drive from Sheffield.

Since Sheffield is the UK’s number one city for those interested in outdoor sports, even offers of postgraduate study at other top UK universities couldn’t pull me away from this place. Being awarded my scholarship made the decision to stay much easier.

What did winning the scholarship mean to you?

It was an honour to be awarded a University Prize Scholarship. It validated the hard work that I had put in for years, along with the help and guidance of several key people along the way to whom I am grateful, in order to be in a strong position to start a research degree.

Receiving the scholarship was like hearing senior researchers say “we think you can do some really good research”, and this did wonders for my motivation.

I have been particularly impressed with the development opportunities beyond research that make up the Doctoral Development Programme.

Matthew Allcock

PhD student - School of Mathematics and Statistics

What has your experience of doing a PhD at Sheffield been so far?

I have been particularly impressed with the development opportunities beyond research that make up the Doctoral Development Programme. This provides a space to develop knowledge in research ethics and build skills such as public speaking, literature exploration, and public outreach, that are broadly relevant for research and many other sectors. What has also been impressive is the way in which feedback about this programme has been used to better match what researchers would find valuable.

What are your future plans?

During my PhD, I have realised that some research is far more important than others. When we look into the past it is clear that some research makes just a splash of positive impact while other research makes a tidal wave.

When looking into the future, we want to prioritise research that will make a tidal wave. I hope to use the valuable skills I have gained during my PhD to move into the sort of research that I expect will leverage a significant impact into the most pressing problems that humanity and non-human animals face.

I am not yet sure whether I will be best placed in research within or outside academia, perhaps in a charity, a think tank, or the government.

Do you have any advice for future prospective PhD students?

Don’t undertake a PhD lightly. A PhD requires a huge commitment of time and mental energy. And even if you have both of these in abundance, a PhD still might not be the best choice. Make sure that doing a PhD is the best path towards where you want to get to. Choosing the best path involves choosing the right topic to study, the right institution, and the right supervisor for you.

Make sure that you chose a topic that is the most fascinating, the most valuable for the world, and the topic in which you are most able to succeed. Of course, one topic is unlikely to satisfy all of these, but try to optimise across all three rather than focusing on just one.

If you aren’t sure which topic optimises these criteria, seriously consider postponing starting your PhD until you decide. The downsides to waiting a few years before starting a PhD are small but the downsides to committing to a project that later you realise was not the best choice could be large.

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