Month: June 2021

Dr Andrew Cairns on his research and LGBTQ+ role models in STEM

Dr Andrew CairnsDr Andrew Cairns is a Research Fellow in the Department of Materials. He is also a part of the LGBTQ+ community and Mental Health First Aider. To mark the end of Pride 2021, Dr Cairns shares more about his current research, his motivations for studying Materials Science and the importance of having an LGBTQ+ role model in STEM.

Hi, I’m Andrew, and I’m a Research Fellow in the Department of Materials. To give you an overview of my research: I investigate materials that behave in the opposite way than you might expect: so, instead of expanding when heated, they shrink. Even more bizarrely, under pressure, they expand rather than compressing in every direction.

We have found examples of these behaviours that are very extreme in a class of materials called molecular frameworks. We continue to look for larger and even more unusual properties and link properties together to engineer multi-functional materials. The challenge that drives me is how to manipulate matter — atom by atom — to realise advanced functionality.

Motivating this work further is the impact such unusual materials could have on future technologies. These properties — today mostly seen as curiosities — could enable more sensitive touch screens, devices with variable-pressure recognition, more accurate sensors, or more efficient data storage. We aim for a step-change in device performance that will only be possible with radically different materials than those currently used. So, alongside making new materials, we are working to fabricate these materials into prototype forms (like very thin coatings) that could be integrated into devices.

‘Science is AMAZING’

Like most of us in science, there is huge joy when you discover something no one else has ever seen before. During my doctoral studies, I remember the first time this happened: my supervisor and I were staring at an Excel workbook, systematically inputting numbers as the machine outputted data, and not believing our eyes. We worked in almost silence until we went to lunch and could say, ‘is it true?… This is amazing!’ Who knew an Excel file would ever be that interesting?

A photo of Dr Andrew Cairns at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF)
Dr Andrew Cairns at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF)

Of course, not every day is eureka-central: it takes a lot of patience and many failed experiments to get to that point. In those times, the things I enjoy most are the people and amazing facilities I am very fortunate to work with. I worked previously at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF), one of the most intense sources of X-rays in the world. I was blown away by the dedication of the scientists there and the ingenuity of the engineers who keep such a massive machine working (it has a circumference of over 800 m). Today, I continue to work with groups close to home, such as the Henry Royce Institute and all around the world. Getting involved in projects and seeing ideas develop with others is rewarding every day, including supporting students and colleagues to achieve great results.

The importance of LGBTQ+ role models in STEM

I was extremely fortunate that my doctoral supervisor, Prof Andrew Goodwin, is one of only a few LGBT+ academics in STEM. I was not aware of this when I first met him, but I am sure that having this role model has changed my experience in science. On one level, having someone to look up to gives confidence that my sexuality shouldn’t hold me back. This makes it easier each time I have to come out in a professional context. On another, I know that if ever I did experience hostility (I am fortunate this has never happened), I have a large group of supporters who would make it clear that such behaviour was not acceptable. There is huge power in knowing you are not alone.

Bringing your whole self to work is something I feel is so important in a job like being an academic for LGBT+ scientists or any other underrepresented group. We are often working 1:1 with collaborators, students and colleagues to support one another where trust and openness are key. Having been supported in my own journey makes me absolutely committed to doing my best for those around me.

I am therefore passionate about doing great science but working to make academia more welcoming and diverse. To me, these are one in the same: if we treated our equipment badly, we would expect bad data and therefore bad science, so why expect anything different from our people? More broadly, why does academia shelter, and in some cases celebrate, harassers and bullies? All our efforts in equality, diversity, and inclusion should be celebrated as a central part of being a scientist. And I continue to learn: to do my best science and to be the best scientist I can be. I am sure I will make mistakes in both areas, but I never want to lose the desire to do the right thing.

An image of Dr Andrew Cairns and Prof Andrew Goodwin
An image of Dr Andrew Cairns and Prof Andrew Goodwin. Photo credit: ESRF/C. Argoud.

My advice for the next generation of LGBTQ+ Scientists and Engineers

Find your champion! I was lucky this was someone who I was interacting with every day, but there are more and more visible LGBT+ scientists and engineers out there who want to support the next generation. It might be that you are comfortable to come out and share your experiences with these people, to find that community, and that is great. Or it might be that you are less comfortable, and so even just checking the Twitter account of an LGBT+ scientist or engineer you admire can help give you a sense of connection.

We also must recognise how different parts of our community have different challenges, and others may live in countries where it is simply not possible to be out. Everyone has a responsibility to respect difference, acknowledge privilege and educate ourselves. In particular, current attacks on the trans* community are deeply worrying, reminding us all that rights that may seem to be won can be taken away just as easily. If you can, fly the flag and celebrate – but remember Pride is still a protest, and there is work to be done.

Meet the team: Zyme Biosciences reach WE Innovate finals

Dr Marta Broto Aviles leads the Zyme Biosciences team

Zyme Biosciences have made the finals of the WE Innovate 2021, a scheme led by the Imperial Enterprise Lab. WE Innovate provides a platform to showcase the incredible progress being made in women’s entrepreneurship at Imperial – with winning teams winning a part of a 30K prize fund for their ideas. In this post, the team explain more about their potential product and the scheme.

Introducing the team

We are a team of researchers from the Department of Materials, working under Professor Molly Stevens. A lot of the work we do is focused on translatable technology for point-of-care diagnostics. When COVID-19 came along last year there was a large shift in the outlook of our field, as organisations around the world quickly began to understand the value of accessible diagnostics. It was this that motivated our team lead, Dr Marta Broto Aviles, to enter us in the WE innovate programme, to learn more about how we could move some of our work to the market.

Our team of four is a small-scale representation of the research group at large, and the work we are pitching is the culmination of years of work from various group members. Our WE innovate team consists of three post-doctoral researchers; Marta, Leah, and Paresh, and one PhD student; Schan. We come from a mix of academic backgrounds, but we have all been in the Stevens group for multiple years and have expertise centring on nano-diagnostics.

Developing our product: QuickZyme

The venture we have taken through the accelerator is called Zyme Biosciences, pitching our product: QwikZyme. QwikZyme is a small, user-friendly device that utilises novel nanomaterials to detect a range of disease biomarkers, most recently we have optimised the assay to detect proteins located in the SARS-CoV-2 virus. By focussing on COVID-19 biomarkers, for now, we believe we have a relevant entry to the market for this diagnostic platform that can be expanded to detect non-communicable diseases such as cancer.

An image of Schan Dissanayake-Perera

What we’ve learned through the WE Innovate scheme

As academic researchers, the prospect of dipping your toes into the world of business can be a terrifying prospect. But the higher up the ladder you climb the more it becomes clear just how interdependent two streams of academia and business really are. The whole landscape can be quite tricky to navigate but luckily, Imperial has a few different programmes to help researchers get off the ground and learn about what it takes to translate an idea from the lab to the boardroom.

WE innovate has been an amazing opportunity, not only in terms of networking but also in developing our soft skills such as pitching. One workshop that stood out, was one given by a pair of professional magicians who taught us how pitching, like magic, is all about directing the attention of an audience for a specific purpose. We are all used to presenting science in an academic context but selling an idea to a potential investor requires a whole different approach.

A challenge that has been unique to our venture, and likely to many other university spinouts, is the navigation of a complex intellectual property landscape. Understanding exactly who owns an idea is quite important if you are looking to sell or license that idea so it has been really useful to be put in touch with a number of IP law experts in this area.

We are really excited to have made it through to the final of the WE innovate programme and are extremely grateful for all the help we have received along the way!

Update: The team won the People’s Vote: Lauren Dennis Award in the finals, winning 3 months of personalised coaching to develop their product, as well as £1,500 towards the development of their product and the Engineers in Business Fellowship award.