Author: Imperial Materials

LGBTSTEMDay: Interview with Dr Ben Britton

An image of Dr Ben BrittonTo 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 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 the representation of 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?

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. 

Alumni Spotlight: Interview with Alexis Abayomi

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

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.

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. 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 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. 

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

Dr Marta Broto AvilesFor 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.

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

An image of Dr Gurpreet SinghFor 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.

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

An image of Abigail AckermanFor 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.

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

An image of Xin xuFor 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.

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

An image of Oriol Gavalda DiazFor 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.

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.