PhD Profile - Chuhao Liu

Optimising the design of geogrids with rubber and plastic to reinforce railway foundations

With a number of awards already under his belt Mr Chuhao Liu, a PhD student at the Centre for Geomechanics & Railway Engineering, has was selected as a finalist at the 2019 TEDxSydney Kick Start competition where he presented his idea: 'SoundTrack' - in the New Business Idea category. We wanted to learn a little more about Chuhao and why he is so passionate about his research in high speed rail.

When did you commence HDR study and what is the working title of your thesis?

I began in 2017 and plan to finish my PhD by 2020. My thesis is entitled: 'Improved Performance of Stabilised Ballast in Rail Tracks'.

Please give a broad description of the topic you investigated as part of your research.

Currently, the rail industry uses geogrids (plastic net-like grids) to reinforcing railway foundations by placing geogrids under ballast. My research aims to identify the optimum design of geogrids. Therefore, we can provide an industry manufacturing standard, saving lots of track maintenance costs in the future.

Can you provide some background on how and why you were drawn to HDR research?

After achieving my Bachelor of Science from Beijing, China and Master of Science degree from Texas, US, I moved to UoW to start my PhD journey. Why I do a PhD is that I fundamentally believe technology can make our world better. Therefore, I want to do a PhD to learn more knowledge and, more importantly, how to do research.

Lots of people asked why I moved to Australia. The first reason is my supervisor, distinguished Prof. Buddhima Indraratna is very famous in my field and the research centre at UoW (Centre for Geomechanics and Railway Engineering) is very competitive around the world. Secondly, I like the topic railway, it is very practical and has a promising application. Thirdly, I have never been to Australia before. Why not try something new? And it turns out that Wollongong is a surprisingly peaceful city to do research and reflections.

How did you / your approach to research change over that time /what your view is now?

At first, my approach is a theoretical method. Basically, I simplified the complex realistic problem into mathematics. Then, I found out the reality is not as simple as I expected. Therefore, I started to do some tests and improve my theory based on the results. Reality will not change because of your view. Instead, I need to change my thinking to fit into nature.

What were some highlights of your HDR study? 

Winning the "Showcasing Early Career Researcher" competition organised by CRC Association (CRCA) was a highlight. It's a national competition at the annual conference where 6 finalists present their research in 5-min. The winner is selected by the audience. I was very happy to get people's recognition of my research. PhD research is like your child. When your child gets an award, you will feel proud.

I was also the UOW's 3MT winner for 2018, and proud to be the first Chinese winner of this competition. I want to serve as an example to non-native speakers that we can win English presentation competitions. Hopefully, my story can encourage more people to participate in 3MT this year. 

And now I'll be competing as one of the 6 finalists at the TEDxSydney Kick Start competition. In my application for this event I wrote: "If you could give me 1 minute, I will show you a brighter future. No matter win or lose, other PhD students will be inspired as I can serve as an example that we have opportunities to make a difference and shape the future."
In one minute I will present 'SoundTrack' - an automated sound based inspection system which will use AI to localise track flaws and send email alerts to personnel.

What were the lowlights?

The testing results in my second year were not as what I predicted. That's the pain of PhD. No one knows the right answer. You need to find out. Lots of trial-and-error experiences. Another lowlight is the failure in Asia-Pacific 3MT. As I have never been to the worldwide stage, I was so nervous. Therefore, I finished my 3-min speech 30 seconds earlier, stopping me at the semi-final. I learnt a tough lesson about accepting failure. 

Describe the most important things for PhD study.

Supervisor support. As I am just a freshman in the research, the supervisor's guidance is very important to me. Luckily, I have sufficient support from my supervisor, distinguished Prof. Buddhima Indraratna. He gave me good advice not only on my research but also on my presentations. Every time I have a presentation competition coming, he helps me improve my script and expression. Another support was he encouraged the whole group to go there to support me at the 3MT. He even travelled to Sydney with other colleagues to attend the final of CRCA competition. It's very helpful to see some familiar and encouraging faces when standing on the stage.

What advice do you (or would you give) to those considering HDR study or currently studying?

Choose something you are passionate about. Suppose I would die at 90 years of age, I have almost passed 1/3 of my life. If life were a 3-day long weekend, I only had 2 days left. We all know how quickly two days pass. I am not going to pursue what other people want. I will just be myself, leaving no regret.

How do you think your research can change the world?

My research aims to provide an industry standard which will help every railway use the best geogrids, therefore reducing current maintenance costs. The railway industry is lagging behind with new technologies, therefore leaving lots of opportunities for young people like me. I believe the training I have received from my PhD at UOW will help me revolutionise the railway industry after graduation.