Sean Loughney - who is LJMU's new rising research star?

Conversations with his grandfather, a Merchant Navy man, guided lecturer Sean Loughney into marine engineering, and he hasn’t looked back – starting as an undergraduate at LJMU, he was named LJMU Rising Star at the RKE Awards in December. We spoke to him this week …

Tell us a bit about your background and education

I’ve been at LJMU since 2009 and have completed a MEng (1st class hons) in Mechanical and Marine Engineering and PhD (Offshore Engineering).  I received the Gordon Robertson Prize (2014) for my performance during my master’s studies and the Deans Prize for Best PhD Thesis (2018).

However, I actually came to the university when my A-Level studies did not go to plan. I am not ashamed to admit I achieved C, E, E but didn’t want to let that stop me as I knew I could do better in the right environment. Staff in LJMU’s School of Engineering, Technology and Maritime Operations (as it was known then) very graciously met with me and invited me to do a Foundation Engineering Year and which I progressed to a Mechanical Engineering degree.

Following my PhD thesis, I joined LJMU as a post-doc as a co-investigator on an Interreg project focusing on site selection for floating offshore wind farms. Since then, I have worked on multiple research projects related to safe navigation, risk and reliability of large engineering systems, sustainability and management of offshore installations, and net-zero carbon decision making tools … to name a few.

Sean was appointed as a lecturer in 2019 and is now a senior lecturer in Maritime Management.


Why did you end up in engineering and why does maritime engineering ‘float your boat’?

Engineering has always been a passion. From an early age I always took toys and things apart to see how they worked (I just couldn’t put them back together again!). Similarly, as I got older, this became an appreciation for mathematics and physics especially. My aim was to study mechanical engineering but I was drawn to the marine side as my grandfather (who sadly passed before I completed my MEng) was an electricians officer in the Merchant Navy. Conversations with him about our passions for engineering, and about his time in shipping drove me to alter my discipline, and I haven’t looked back. 


You seem to have a particular interest in shipping automation and decarbonisation – why is that?

Maritime and marine engineering are vital for the future of both shipping and energy – but they also need to be sustainable, safe, and environmentally friendly. So, my drive and passion now are making efforts to provide improvements, optimisation and/or positive contributions to the sustainability, safety, and environmental impact of the marine industry. These factors ultimately lead down the road of modernisation of ships and offshore installations in terms of alternative fuels and the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. These are “hot topics” in the industry and there are aspects that are unknown, unsafe, and uncertain, and in order to progress research must be conducted in this aspect. This is to improve the safe application and operation of sustainable, zero-carbon ideas, solutions, and systems.


What are some of the big challenges in your field over the coming years?

The biggest challenges I think will be the transition into autonomous ships and autonomous technology, and the decommissioning of the hundreds of oil and gas platforms around the UK. Autonomous ships come with a multitude of challenges and issues that must be addressed before the ideas become a commercial reality and widely used. Such as how Artificial Intelligence (AI) interprets rules and regulations, like prevention of collisions regulations.

It is the safe application of systems like this that interest and fascinate me as a researcher. Decommissioning of oil and gas installations is something I am working on now, more specifically how this is managed in a safe and environmentally friendly way as there are older systems, chemicals and substances that are stored offshore but are no longer in use or part of the inventory. There is an issue of proper identification and handling for the crews who dismantle these installations offshore, transport them to the UK, then further dismantle onshore. Improving and optimising these processes to improve sustainability and safety is a challenge in the next decade and beyond. However, that means there is an abundance of research potential (and hopefully funding!).


I expect your students are quite high achieving after graduating – that must be satisfying?

I do enjoy it when students choose to come and do a master’s or a PhD based on their experiences at LJMU. We have a strong belief of incorporating our research into our teaching. This perhaps gives the students a different outlook on research or introduces research to them for the first time. Many are daunted by the prospect of research, such as completing a PhD, because of their own perceptions or the influence of others. This is the biggest step to overcome when students what to do research but don’t think they are capable. I am lucky in that I can use my own path as an example that anyone can do what they are passionate about, even after disappointments, failures, or misinformation.


What is good and what is ‘could-do-better’ about the support at LJMU for young researchers?

I think the support at LJMU is excellent. There is a plethora of opportunities to find out about research and improve one’s research methods and approaches. This is right from undergraduate level to PhD and Post-Doctoral Research. Having come through the system at LJMU I have seen first-hand the improvements made to access, opportunities, and support for young researchers. I would always like to more and more Post Graduate Researchers in the faculty and the university, and in recent times I believe we have had a continuous improvement in this area. Based on the Faculty’s and indeed the School of Engineering’s REF 2021 results, we are proven to be internationally recognised or world leading in research. So, I think that the university does exceptionally well to support young researchers and long may it continue.


You are a bit of a student of engineering students, is that right?

I am currently studying for my MA in Academic Practice with a specific focus on what drives students to Higher Education, specifically to MScs in the School of Engineering. My hope is that my research in the social aspect of engineering education can help the School, Faculty and indeed the University improve its understanding of students before they arrive and optimise the university experience.




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