Blog posts

Materials Science from home: First year students talk lab-in-a-box projects

During Autumn Term 2020, our first-year students in the Department of Materials started using lab-in-a-box projects to support their learning from home. These projects are used as a bridge between in-person teaching, while our students are learning remotely due to the pandemic. Two of our students have shared their experiences using the lab-in-a-box projects and what they’ve learned.

An image of Anjali Devadasan

Anjali Devadasan

The lab in the box was an incredibly exciting aspect of the first few weeks of term. The doorbell rang, I collected the parcel and immediately opened the box to explore the contents inside. The most discussed object on the year group chat (after the vernier callipers of course) was the mini microscope. We shared images of objects under the microscope and guessed what the objects examined were, which ranged from oranges, leaves, paper, and even phone screens.

An image of an apple leaf through the mini-mircoscope
An image of an apple leaf through the mini-microscope

Remote learning has resulted in spending most of our time in front of laptop/computer screens, but the lab in a box has provided us with a change of scenario on many Friday afternoons. The first time I used something from the box was in the Design Study drawing lesson where our task was to sketch a couple of 3D printed parts. Little did we know that the same parts would help us measure density with Arduino in the near future! Arduino sessions began with a short lecture describing the task for the day and for the next three or four hours, I would work through PDF instructions alongside my design study company and the much-appreciated help from our GTA, Harry. We guided each other, laughed at our mistakes, and were confused together and I think the challenges really brought our company together as a team.

Once we gained enough experience with Arduino, we did some lab work in company sub-groups of four. Labs consisted of the various subgroups measuring electrical and thermal conductivity and density using the Arduino setups we had learned. We also did hardness testing for different samples – where we used our mini microscopes! I enjoyed learning the Arduino together as it was fulfilling when we solved the problems with the setup and managed to get it working to receive some real values.

My favourite set up was the very first time we managed to display temperature readings on the little LCD screen. It was exciting when realistic temperatures for room temperature would appear or when they would change if we put different objects near the sensor, such as ice. It will be interesting to use this set up for the upcoming polymer labs.


An image of Amélie Mattheus
An image of Amélie Mattheus

Amélie Mattheus

I thought that the lab in a box project was a very creative idea. Picking up my lab box allowed me to see my peers for the first time. Even though it was socially distanced and completely COVID safe, it was nice to put a face to the names I had been seeing on Teams. When arriving back in my accommodation, I was very excited to open the box, it was like receiving a surprise delivery.

The box contained several recognisable objects which made me feel relieved at first, however, there were objects that I had never seen before. The Arduino lab was something completely new to me. Hence it was very exciting to see my LED light turn on after completing the lab. There were some struggles with the following Arduino labs due to technical constraints like the wires not being soldered hence not being able to get a connection. The meeting allowed me to see examples of other people’s work that did work. It was nice to be in smaller groups as you can talk more freely.

An image of the LED Experiment
An image of the LED Experiment

The GTA was very helpful and helped us through some long labs. He was always prepared to answer our questions when we got stuck. We also had a hardness lab, where they provided us with a spring, materials to test, and a tube. The hardness lab was the lab I enjoyed the most because it was directly related to materials and one of the properties that we had previously learned about. The goal was to indent the material and measure the radius of the indent. We were provided with a microscope that allowed us to measure even the smallest indents on rubber, which tends to go back to its original shape. In addition, due to doing the labs at home, you are able to use the equipment outside of class as well, for example, one of my group mates pointed out that with the microscope you were able to see the pixels on your laptop screen.

An image of pixels taken through the mini-microscope
An image of pixels taken through the mini-microscope

In the end, we were given some extra data due to the constraints of doing it at home. However, the given data allowed us to still analyse the data and use the software available for that. I enjoyed the labs at home, especially because I was still able to discuss and compare my results with those of others. I thought it was a creative alternative that allowed us to still do labs and achieve the skills learned by doing these.  

We co-authored a paper using research from our UROP

Many of our students undertake a Undergraduate Research Opportunity Programme in the Department and sometimes the research conducted during their UROP can lead to co-authorships with the academic group. This was the case for second year Undergraduate student Yingxu Li and fourth year Undergraduate student Seif Mehanna, whose research contributed to a recent paper with Dr Mark Oxborrow which is now published in Physical Review Applied. The paper demonstrates how a cheap organic material can be exploited to detect extremely weak radio signals so weak that the signal contains only a small number of radio-frequency photons.

Both students have provided us with a snapshot into the research they did for the paper and their UROP experience.

Seif Mehanna

The aim of my part of the research was to see if we could get a maser to run using a much cheaper and less bulky light source than a massive medical laser. Lasers tend to be very inefficient at producing yellow light, so we used a luminescent concentrator instead. Luminescent concentrators are devices that concentrate and shift the colour of light, so you end up with a very bright light with a desired wavelength (colour).

I made this very simple setup where we had a luminescent concentrator that Dr Oxborrow had made earlier, surrounded it with two Soviet-made Xe-flash lamps held up with lab clamps, and had a sample at the end of the concentrator that we tried to get to mase. As old as those lamps were, they’re very energy efficient and did a great job! They were so powerful that you could feel when they went off, just like with the flash in a profession studio. Sometimes you don’t need the newest and fanciest equipment to be on the cutting edge of science!

I’m very happy to see the consequences of my research included in this paper, and I hope that it shows that you can have fun and look to the past while doing pioneering research to advance the future.

Yingxu Li

My research contribution to the paper was to render the instrument setup of this newly-developed MASTER, trying to make it look real as in the reality. Figures 5(a) and (b) in the publication were produced by the 3-D rendering program, “Blender”.

This UROP was my first ever research experience in my life, definitely unforgettable! Despite the whole programme shifted to online-based, I learned a lot about MASER, as well as 3D graphical modelling using Blender software. Also, the working vibe in Dr Mark Oxborrow’s team was so welcoming and everyone in the team was happy to help me as “a baby in scientific research”. It gave me an immersive insight of researchers life and a taste of how a publication paper was produced. Last but not least, thank you to Dr Oxborrow for giving me the opportunity to contribute in the paper, it made the summer in 2020 so special!

I hope this can show the fantastic opportunities available to students in our department.

Hear more from our students about their UROPs and find out how to apply.

LGBTSTEMDay: Interview with Dr Ben Britton

An image of Dr Ben Britton

To celebrate LGBT STEM Day 2020, Dr Ben Britton, Reader in Metallurgy and Microscopy – and RAEng Research Fellow, has shared more about LGBT+ STEM Day, his research and how simple acts from everyone can go a long way.

Can you tell us more about yourself and your research?

Hi, I’m Ben and my pronouns are he/him. I’m a Reader in Metallurgy and Microscopy, and I lead a group who try to understand how metals are processed, perform and ultimately fail in high-risk high-value applications, such as nuclear power plants, aeroengines, and the petrochemical industry. We work together to combine experiments and simulations together, collaborating with folks across Imperial, in industry and across the world. I also tweet a bit (@bmatb), teach a bit, and have other interests.

What does LGBTSTEMDay mean to you and why is it important for everyone?

I am not only a material scientist and engineer, I’m also a gay man. Many folks may suggest that my sexuality and gender identity have no relevance for my work. This is incorrect, as numerous surveys and academic papers tell a different story. There is substantive co-correlation of evidence that the relationships we form and who we connect with influence our successes in work and beyond. LGBTSTEMDay provides people who identify as ‘not straight’ and/or ‘not cisgendered’ (i.e. those whose current gender identity matches their gender identity at birth) to celebrate contributions of those people like us, create communities, and create meaningful changes to the practice of science, technology, engineering and maths across the world.

On a more personal level, I also used #LGBTSTEMDay to ‘come out’ more widely in public. As frankly, it is EXHAUSTING to hide this part of your identity and to worry about the implications on your career. So #LGBTSTEMDay has, as I shared in a public talk at the College, entitled me to say: go and read my b****y blog piece – ‘So it’s #LGBTSTEMDay…so what?’

Who are your greatest role models in STEM?

This is always a challenge. Most historical queer figures have had their queer identity written out of the history books. Additionally, one of the privileges for me, as a white man in STEM, is that there are many people like me who have ‘succeeded’ and can be seen in positions of power. This also highlights the imbalance in our midst, especially for those who are at the intersection of minority identities and are doubly marginalised (e.g. people who identify as Black and queer).

There are efforts to correct this, as, for instance, Dr Jess Wade (and many others) have been strengthening representation individuals from marginalised groups on Wikipedia, and so we can now more easily identify and empathise with existing role models in our field. There are also professional networks, such as IOM3Pride, LGBTQ+ STEM, Pride in STEM, 500 Queer Scientists and many more where LGBTQ+ people can find people like them, share experiences, and benefit from networking opportunities that they have been (directly and indirectly) excluded from.

How can everyone be an ally and action for change?

In my opinion, the ‘ally’ objective is overrated. I would prefer for people to want to be decent human beings. In that light, I want co-conspirators who are willing to say that the status quo is not good enough, and to agitate for change. There is no reason why we should sustain and support systems that establish marginalisation of individuals based upon their sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as other protected characteristics (and socio-economic class).

There are old and new barriers that actively exclude LGBT+ people and members of other minority groups from participating, and these exist both within the Department, within the College, in the Profession and in wider society. Dismantling these all at once is a daunting task, but simple acts can go a long way, and lots of the work to identify these issues has been done already. So if you want a more refined list of recommendations, you should read the Royal Society of Chemistry, Institute of Physics and Royal Astronomical Society report on Exploring the Workplace Climate for LGBT+ Physical Scientists. 

Black History Month Spotlight: Alexis Abayomi

Alexis Abayomi is an alumna of the Department, who studied MEng Materials Science and Engineering. Alexis graduated in 2017 and is currently the founder of start-up UCYCLESYNC and a Data Analyst at EY.

In her free time, Alexis loves cycling around the river and parks in London and visiting different parts of the city. She also builds and program legos and enjoys travelling to and exploring different countries.

Alexis Abayomi

I wanted to study Materials because I like to understand why materials behave the way they do and how to change the properties of materials. This interest was sparked from my love of physics during A-level, especially solid-state physics. Plus, I enjoyed physical chemistry. I initially applied to study Chemistry, but I had a conversation with my Physics teacher, and she introduced me to Materials. I wrote to the Materials department and asked to move my application from Chemistry to Materials, and they said yes.

My best moments at Imperial included having much fun with netball, the African and Caribbean society and my course mates in G10. Afrogala 2014: it took a lot of my time, but I got to meet some amazing people and model dance. It was completely out of my comfort zone, and I’m glad I did it. Also, Varsity in 3rd and 4th year because the 3s beat the medics, and the last song with the netball ladies in metric was always a highlight!

However, there were challenges. I struggled to balance studying, working, netball and ACS. Also Menstrual Cycle health was not a focus at Imperial. I suffered from period pain in the third and fourth years, and there was nowhere to turn. That’s one of the reasons I started the start-up UCYCLESYNC. 

Finances were so difficult. I wasn’t able to get a maintenance loan, and I didn’t feel supported when Imperial withheld a grant because of my immigration status. I am so glad to have had an amazing personal tutor. Professor Vandeperre listened to me cry and try to leave with a bachelor, but said: “let’s figure how you can afford to stay for your masters.” I have no words to describe how much I appreciated having someone help me. He is the best. 

I am inspired and energised by so many people right now. I’m in awe of the FIRE (Financial Freedom, Retire Early) movement. I spend a lot of my spare time watching YouTube videos about people who have retired early and learning how to take steps in my own life to do the same. Also, Bukola from The Come Up, she is a self-thought software engineer who is on the FIRE Track. It’s so great to see someone who looks like you and has had a similar upbringing with the same investing goals.

My advice for students from the Black community wishing to study STEM subjects is: go for it! Pick whatever you want to do. It might be lonely sometimes walking the corridor and not seeing anyone that looks like you. Simple questions like “where do I get my hair done?” or “where can I get plantain?” become big issues, but you will find your people and explore London to get these answers.

National Postdoc Appreciation week: Dr Marta Broto Aviles

For National Postdoc Appreciation week, some of our postdocs share their journey into research and advice for those thinking of a career in academia. Marta is a Research Associate in the group of Molly Stevens.

An image of Marta Broto Aviles

What led you to postdoc research? 

After finishing my PhD, I decided to do my postdoc abroad as I wanted a new challenge in my progression through academia. I intended to understand different ways of thinking about science and broaden my scientific network. I also wanted to start creating my own research lines, managing self-made projects, supervising students, and learning about a new research field. Altogether, I believed this would help me gain the desired skills to become a group leader, a career goal of mine.

What do you enjoy about your current research?

What I enjoy most about my current research is the ability to create and define my own ideas. In a couple of years, I have been able to define innovative projects and see how students have been able to take them forward. Learning from all these new ideas, both personally and through students, is really rewarding.

What has been the highlight of your academic journey so far?

I believe it is worth highlighting how scientists from many disciplines have come together to fight the current situation with scientific solutions. I have had the opportunity to work with one of these teams and the collaboration and drive shown by everyone really made me feel proud of the scientific community. It has also given me the chance to be involved in a more translational project really broadening my knowledge!

What advice would you give to those who are considering a career in academia?

I would recommend thinking about what they would like to learn and what is the objective in pursuing academic positions. Institutions and research groups have different ways of thinking towards research, from more applied to translational, and understanding where you want to go will really help moving forward. Furthermore, it is important not only to learn new things at every step but to be able to share and improve your own acquired skills.

National Postdoc Appreciation week: Dr Gurpreet Singh

For National Postdoc Appreciation week, some of our postdocs share their journey into research and advice for those thinking of a career in academia. Gurpreet is a Research Associate in the group of Professor Luc Vandeperre.

An image of Dr Gurpreet Singh

What led you to postdoc research?

My journey to postdoc research is fuelled by my passion for science and my religion. I want to establish myself as a ‘Sikh Scientist’, since the world is yet to get familiar with scientists from unnoticed ethnic backgrounds, especially from Sikhism. Therefore, as opposed to my fellow Sikhs commonly excelling in the army or business sector, I decided to pursue science and travelled to the UK to complete my Masters and PhD in inorganic chemistry.

Then, one job led to another, and finally, after 5 years of struggle, I secured a job at Imperial as a postdoc to pursue my passion of synthesising nanoparticles and achieve excellence in this field. I believe this is my pathway to establishing my research group in the future and fulfil my dream to represent my community in science.

What do you enjoy about your current research?

My current research is about inorganic nanoparticles, particularly magnetic composites. I really enjoy syntheses and characterisation, as I feel my strengths reside in experimentation. A normal day at work for me is to synthesise nanoparticles with a magnetic property, and then functionalise these with different chemical groups. This is quite an exciting task as I get complete freedom to explore many chemicals that I foresee to be compatible in the structure and useful towards my application.

Therefore, I enjoy designing new protocols and then testing my samples using both simple techniques such as a bar magnet, and advanced tools like magnetometers and spectroscopies. This sort of freedom is quite rare for a postdoc project, but I consider myself lucky that apart from the niche field of application, I get to explore new inorganic synthetic reactions every day.

What has been the highlight of your academic journey so far?

Apart from being the 1st and only Sikh male so far to have graduated with a PhD in chemistry from my Alma mater (in the north-west UK), I have also achieved recognition from the Royal Society of Chemistry as an ‘Emerging Leader’ in inorganic chemistry. I believe this to be the highlight of my academic journey so far, which of course was a fruit of my previous efforts in industry, which was no less of a feat.

I am proud to have led a start-up from inception and successfully carried it through 2 clinical trials. It was a great learning experience to translate lab research to a commercial product and get involved in all areas of a start-up, whether it is product design, syntheses, scale-up, budgeting, troubleshooting, tester-mechanic roles, or even as a trainer, spokesperson and point of contact in clinics.

What advice would you give to those who are considering a career in academia?

My general advice to all students who are considering a career in academia is to focus on excellence. It is not about money or fame, but it is about having a reason to teach or research, and how much you love what you do. Academia, for me, is about progressing and building on what you had learnt in the past. It is about learning and perfecting to then demonstrate the knowledge in your own unique way.

Secondly, I would also like to take this opportunity to encourage all students from minority groups like me, whether they are Sikhs or any other BAME group members, to come forward and add colour to UK’s academia. No matter who or what had put you off in the past, if you have a vision in life towards academia, then strive for excellence in it. Rest everything will fall into place automatically.

National Postdoc Appreciation week: Dr Abigail Ackerman

For National Postdoc Appreciation week, some of our postdocs share their journey into research and advice for those thinking of a career in academia. Abigail is a Research Associate, with a particular focus on Corrosion Metallurgy.

An image of Abigail Ackerman

What led you to postdoc research?

I was drawn to postdoc research as I felt there were many more things I wanted to pursue in academia and science. The possibilities are endless and you have a wide range of control over what you choose to research.
What do you enjoy about your current research?
I enjoy using my own experiences to help students further their research and getting to be involved in multiple projects at once. I also think that the people at Imperial are incredibly supportive and make it a really pleasant working environment.
What has been the highlight of your academic journey so far?
The highlight of my academic journey so far has been getting the opportunity to be invited to give talks and getting to become more independent.
What advice would you give to those who are considering a career in academia?
I would say seize every opportunity that is presented to you! Some will be fun, some will be hard, but all will give you experience and growth as an academic, and as a person.

National Postdoc Appreciation week: Dr Xin Xu

For National Postdoc Appreciation week, some of our postdocs share their journey into research and advice for those thinking of a career in academia. Xin is a Research Associate in the group of Professor David Dye.

An image of Xin xu

What led you to postdoc research?

I have always been interested in materials science. I like investigating the basic scientific questions in materials science and applying the accumulated knowledge to solve engineering problems. Therefore, I wanted to stay in academia.

After my PhD study, I felt that I was still not ready to independently lead a research group and also wanted to fill my research toolbox with more skills and expand my research fields. Postdoc research can give me this training. As a postdoc, we can participate in different projects and research topics, and we get more opportunities to collaborate with other research teams in both academia and industry. It can be seen that postdoc research also helps expand our network, which is very important to our future career.

What do you enjoy about your current research?

My current research is mainly focused on developing novel Ti alloys for jet engines and high-strength steels for automobiles to improve their fuel efficiency. The project is to address the pollution issues arising from the transport sector and future resource limits.

It involves answering both basic scientific and engineering questions, which is quite challenging but excites me a lot. To resolve these questions, I need to employ different research methods/techniques and collaborate with other scientists within and outside Imperial. This strengthens my independent and collaborative research skills. I also like the atmosphere in my group and Engineering Alloy (EA) theme. EA theme performs diverse research on metallic materials, and we have EA seminar regularly, which helps broaden my research horizon.

My PI, Professor David Dye, is very supportive. My colleagues are not only smart but also very helpful. We get along very well and often help each other in labs and joke a lot though research work sometimes makes us serious and stressed. We also have many after work activities which bring us much fun and keep us closer.

What has been the highlight of your academic journey so far?

Many good things have happened during my academic journey. Just mention a few here. I have managed to discover some small interesting scientific questions and find ways to resolve them independently or together with collaborators. This has led to 11 peer-reviewed journal papers and good progress in introducing novel alloys which have the potential for industrial applications.

Additionally, I have gained different research skills and excellent research collaborators during the path. As a result, my confidence in the future research career has been enhanced. Scientific conferences are another highlight. The trip to Ti-2019 in Nante, France and TMS2020 in San Diego, US is unforgettable to me. I had a lot of fun with my colleagues. Besides, through communication with other attendees on these conferences, I have got new research ideas and established new connections.

What advice would you give to those who are considering a career in academia?

I suggest you think about what academic life is in your mind and what you expect from such a career, then talk to some seniors about your thoughts to make sure you are seeking the right career. Independent researchers not only do science but also apply for funding and grants, form and leading a research team, writing and reviewing papers, managing labs and probably teaching etc. It sounds fun but it can be very stressful and challenging.

If you are considering postdoc positions, I advise thinking about your research interests and goals, abilities and skills you want to gain, then find the proper projects and make a plan for your postdoc period. The plan could help you work efficiently and remind you about your original objectives when you lose your track because of being busy.

I strongly recommend Postdoc and Fellows Development Centre to postdocs/fellows at Imperial, which provides a wide range of training and help to postdocs/fellows.

National Postdoc Appreciation week: Dr Oriol Gavalda Diaz

For National Postdoc Appreciation week, some of our postdocs share their journey into research and advice for those thinking of a career in academia. Oriol is a Research Associate, with a particular focus on Ceramic Composites and Manufacturing.

An image of Oriol Gavalda Diaz

What led you to postdoc research?

Doing a PhD was hard, but I enjoyed the type of work I was doing more than when working in an aerospace company before. Working within academia let me focus on trying to understand why things happen, and this kept me motivated and engaged with the project. After my PhD, I was keen to continue working within academia, and I liked the idea of moving to another research group to start a postdoc and become more independent.

What do you enjoy about your current research?

I like the feeling that the experiments I perform have a tangible benefit to a product/industry. In my case, I work trying to solve problems for companies by using experiments which seek a more fundamental understanding and are not easily accessible in many places. For example, testing materials at a very small scale. This keeps my research focused on clear targets but gives me a high degree of freedom to approach problems how I want. At the same time, being surrounded by academic and industrial collaborators allows me to get the best from both worlds.

What has been the highlight of your academic journey so far?

I find it difficult to appreciate my own highlights, but I was very happy to be employed after my PhD at the structural ceramics group. I had been interested in the research performed by the group and the problems they were targeting since my PhD in Nottingham. Being part of this group for 2 years has allowed me to grow in the direction I wanted and get the right mentorship. I now feel ready to start creating my own independent research line and explore new opportunities.

What advice would you give to those who are considering a career in academia?

An academic career can be difficult, so it is important to find people that are willing to give you advice and be supportive in difficult times. Do not be scared if you think that your profile does not fit, academia is not perfect, but it is trying to change and needs people from different backgrounds. If you want to do a PhD or a Postdoc, make sure that you choose the right supervisor/mentor, someone that will give you opportunities and will put your learning process at the top of their priority list. For this, talk to people in the group and ask them what the group is like to work in and any other questions you have.

Meet Materials: Sarah Fothergill, PhD student

Hello! My name is Sarah and I’m a third year PhD student supervised by Dr Fang Xie. My research focuses on the medical applications of novel nanomaterials, particularly for ultrasensitive diagnosis. Although my background is primarily physics, my research allows me to span across all the sciences. I have a particular interest in enterprise and innovation and I aim to develop technology solutions that will have a real impact on patients and that can easily be implemented in a clinical setting.

My current work in the Xie group 

Our project aim is to combine research in nanotechnology, material science, virology and immunology to deliver robust, highly sensitive and locally deployable assays for coronavirus infection. By harnessing the high sensitivity, our tests should need extremely small sample volumes and allow for rapid analysis. This should be an easy to construct and low-cost system.

Our group has a focus on using fluorescence biosensing, and we incorporate nanomaterials into pre-existing assay methodologies to improve the sensitivity, detection limit and dynamic range. We do this by using a phenomenon known as metal enhanced fluorescence (MEF) to develop plasmonic enhanced assays with superior performance. One of the great things about the materials we are developing is that they are versatile and can be extended for the diagnosis of multiple diseases. For example, our group is also working on sensitive pancreatic cancer diagnosis. We are currently in the process of incorporating our optimised nanomaterials into clinically viable assays and we are hopeful that our technology can be commercialised soon.

Collaborations and support from colleagues 

I am primarily working with another PhD student (William Morton) but there are multiple other people we are collaborating with and many others who are being extremely helpful. We have patient samples provided by Professor Graham Taylor in the Faculty of Medicine. In addition to this, the performance of our assays is being compared to the standard ELISA assays by a Cambridgeshire based biotech company as our industry collaborator. Dr Peter Petrov and his group in the Thin Film Technologies Lab (TFT) also continue assist with their facilities. Finally, Professor Peter O’Hare (Faculty of Medicine), is an excellent support, and has been great at providing a breadth of knowledge across virology. Given I came into this with no virology experience, it has definitely been a learning curve.

Skills I have developed during my research

There are many other ways that research in general has also changed and skills we’ve had to learn. Like many others we have had to adapt to taking a more virtual approach to collaboration, which in itself is a new environment and new challenge. I certainly know more about the structure and function of coronaviruses than I ever did before and I’ve had to develop a working knowledge of immunology. Although I am by no means a biologist, it’s certainly been interesting – particularly for SARS-CoV-2 where the information available is still evolving.