Blog posts

Untangling climate change and health from a political perspective

A photo of Leonardo Zea Reyes wearing a navy coloured suit with a pink tie and a background of green trees.

Leonardo Zea Reyes has an educational background in urban management and development, urban environment and climate change, and architecture. He’s just about to start his second year as a PhD student at Imperial’s Centre for Environmental Policy (CEP), and his first co-authored peer-reviewed paper was published in July 2021. 

In this post he tells us more about how his postgraduate research is evolving and what his first experience of the peer-review process has been like.

By Leonardo Zea Reyes

My research focuses on exploring why the application or implementation of joint climate change and public health projects is so challenging on the ground in many cities, and why it takes so much time to realise, even though there is a huge amount of knowledge about the benefits and co-benefits of implementing these kinds of projects. Literature suggests that this is linked to politics, vested interests, structural challenges and the economic system, but we need to be more specific. So, I’m looking at both climate and health from these perspectives, untangling it: what are the specific political influences on project implementation, and what can bring political traction?

I chose to study at the Centre for Environmental Policy because CEP gave me access to a range of research opportunities within the environmental policy realm, which was an advantage. I hope to continue in the line of climate change governance, specifically in cities which I find utterly fascinating

My PhD project has evolved…

In the beginning my proposal was very different. I like to think that its adaptation is a result of reflection based on continuously trying to search for the right research gap. It will likely keep evolving.

I certainly hope it has an impact on policymaking in urban areas, but I do question whether it will. It can sometimes seem that environmental science remains on paper without being used in the “real-world”. Many PhD students and postdocs spend years developing their research; I sometimes wonder how much of that research is used outside academia, and in what specific ways it ends up being applied. In some areas of science it seems to me there is a gap, where the production of the research needs to be done in more effective ways.

… so where does the research go?

Part of my work experience is in setting the ground, planning and execution of buildings and urban developments. I’m an associate in Cónclave Consultora. Think of a new housing development – a tower block. One of the first steps in a new project is to conduct market research and analysis, which determines whether the project is profitable. If the market study concludes that the project is not going to give you a return on investment, you don’t do it. You change plans. If it does have a good return, you proceed. These analyses are so accurate that they tell you everything from how many square meters for how many people per unit (house or flat) are needed, to when it will be bought and who is going to buy it (based on all kinds of demographics, like how many units are needed for singles, how many for couples with no children, how many for couples with children, how many for couples that plan to have children – and even on further detailed information, such as sexual orientation). The process segmentises and makes the developers clear in these terms.

In contrast, in the world of science research you don’t always know where it’s headed. The investment you put in – for example, in time, effort, intellect, years of preparation, funds – isn’t always so easily quantifiable. I recognise it cannot be so market/profit-based, but consider that at the start of a research project you don’t always know what will happen with the knowledge that results from it: who is going to use it, when and how. You don’t always know what the return of that investment is: is a policy being made or a decision being taken? Is there a collective benefit or might it just benefit an individual? Will another scientist benefit from your work? If so, who? With a bit of luck, it is used outside academia in ways that benefit society, but it also might well never be used.

For some STEM academia, I would say that a kind of market research approach, oriented to the usefulness of science production, is needed; one that more accurately predicts who the end-user might be, whether that’s another scientist, the media, a national level government, a subnational government, a decision maker. Even drawing on demographics like where the decision-maker is from, what their age group is, and what their vision and political orientation might be. Knowing more about the world of politics, big industry, lobbying and other influences on how science is understood, misunderstood and used is incredibly important.

The relationship between policy-making and academic science

I think that this is why I’m interested in the relationship between policy-making and academic scientific research, because it’s where you can bring science-based knowledge into practice and reality. Research might be recognised in the world of academia but end up staying in a fancy database on the internet. We need to bridge the gap, build an arm between both domains, working more collaboratively, if not together in the same space.

My first experience of the peer-review process

I recently published my first co-authored, peer-reviewed paper, which was a very exciting and exhausting experience! It feels good to see your paper out in the world, but it’s surprising that it can take so much time. On the one hand academic publishing warrants quality and rigor – this is obviously incredibly important. On the other hand, the time that this process takes sometimes doesn’t cope with the pace and timing of life in the “real-world”. Things move fast, the world moves fast, people and leaders act quickly. The science world can often move at a different speed. In terms of my own research, there is a mismatch between the academic publishing process and the reality of short political cycles. So, perhaps once something that I investigate is finally published years later, the case on the ground has moved on – it’s not the case anymore because circumstances in that city/region have changed – there might even be another political administration in office.

But I would also say to students who aim to publish research: be patient and keep trying. Rejection doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not a good piece of work – there are a lot of other potential factors. It could, for example, mean it’s just not the right timing, no reviewers could be found, or it’s not a match with journal interests right now. So keep in mind your reason – know why you are passionate about the work and what you’re publishing it for. In academia you have to genuinely be passionate about research, but it also helps if you’re open. Make sure you are open to criticism and feedback in your work. Sometimes it’s difficult to accept others’ ideas, but it will give you another angle.

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The DigiFAB Hackathon 2021: our challenge and how we hacked it

Selfie in the Red Room
Selfie in the Red Room

Undergraduate students, Jiayue Feng and Sandeepa Tuladhar (both Chemistry with Molecular Physics) and Shannan Huang (Chemical Engineering) teamed up in the DigiFAB Hackathon to build a low-cost automated liquid handling platform. Here they tell us more about the challenge, their solution and why it was such a valuable experience.

By Jiayue Feng, Shannan Huang and Sandeepa Tuladhar

Learning more about the tools of our trade

Digital chemistry can potentially revolutionise the industry due to the rate at which discoveries can be made. An automated pipetting system can be accessed in the Molecular Sciences Research Hub (MSRH) but is not suited for all types of chemicals and large volumes of liquids. Digitalising reduces the need for manual labour and time, but still maintains high precision. Therefore, such an automated platform can save scientists from tedious and repetitive benchwork to focus more on designing experiments and analysing data.

Studying chemistry and chemical engineering we often rely on using instruments such as liquid handling platforms, yet we focus little on the mechanism of the instrument itself. Through this project we hoped to gain insights into how the equipment we use works, its drawbacks and how such machines can be optimised and improved.

Our challenge and how we hacked it

The challenge was to build and programme an automated robotic platform to handle/transport multiple vials of liquids, whilst most importantly, being accessible and low-cost. Most commercially available liquid handling platforms cost well over hundreds of thousands of pounds, meaning barriers to access to these machines are a significant issue. We aimed to build a prototype which could automate many types of chemical reactions, handle a variety of harsh chemicals, be programmable with Python and consist of a reproducible and easy-to-assemble build.

We approached this challenge using a modular method by creating a timeline and focusing on one section at a time. Although we only made one prototype, many prototypes of the individual parts were made. First, we mind-mapped potential materials, given that the platform would need to handle a range of pHs as well as chlorinated and non-chlorinated solvents. We resolved to use PTFE, borosilicate glass and stainless steel for any components that would come into contact with the solutions.

To design, 3D print, and laser cut multiple components we used Autodesk Fusion 360 software. After a couple of iterations, the current version of the needle holder was printed (we named it Darth). Adapters were also designed and printed to connect and x- and y-axes linear rails to the linear bearings, allowing movement across the span of the frame.

Simultaneously, we attempted to code the motors and syringe pump. To control the motor using Raspberry Pi, we consulted many websites such as GitHub. After understanding the basics, we learned from other’s work and created our own Python code. A challenge arose when we realised that there was no suitable cable to connect the serial port of the pump to the Raspberry Pi. Instead, we made a compromise cable of three wires that were used for the main commands: start/stop, direction, and ground, which was sufficient to push and pull the syringe.

In the last two weeks, we designed a vial rack and cut it from a thick acetal sheet with the aid of the DigiFAB team and the Hackspace staff (especially David Miller!) All the components, including the syringe pump, the motors, the needle component, a three-way valve, a holding loop, and belts that were fixed by tooth pulleys, were assembled and finetuned. Finally, the codes for each stepper motor, the syringe pump and the wash pump were combined.

Setup of the Low-Cost Liquid Handling Platform
Setup of the Low-Cost Liquid Handling Platform

Hack help with the hardware and software

During the project, a great deal of support was provided by the Hackspace crew: from debugging our codes to teaching us how to use the tools available, such as the laser cutters and 3D printers. They were also very friendly and always willing to help, creating a safe environment for us to feel comfortable to ask for help and make mistakes.

Our team gained a great deal of knowledge in programming the various components in Python and learning about basic electronics. We also rapidly learned how to use a new piece of software, Autodesk Fusion 360, which was necessary at each stage to design components to be 3D printed and laser cut.

On the hardware side, we all gained valuable practical experience in using new tools and equipment. We learnt how to use Ultimaker Cura 3D printers, including knowledge of nuances such as optimal orientation. We also learnt how to set up a laser cutter for different materials, how to bend acrylic to certain angles, and how factors such as frequency, speed and power should be altered depending on the material when laser cutting. Our team gained experience in soldering a variety of components and assembling many different fittings, as well knowledge of small details like the two different types of screws and screwdrivers to match.

The fourth floor

Towards the end of project, we had the opportunity to visit the fourth floor of the MSRH. It was an insightful experience to be able to see the Opentrons automated liquid handling platform in action, and to hear from researchers about the issues of the existing robot and the attempts made to troubleshoot. It was also interesting to compare it with our prototype and realise how its features helped to resolve some issues with the existing automated platform.

Teamwork tips

One of the most useful tips for generating inspiration would be mind-mapping. Working as a team, we first generated many ideas to the problem, no matter how “off the wall” they seemed to be. Then, through discussion, we reviewed those ideas and selected the best one that suited the existing design.

An unforgettable experience

Overall, this has been an unforgettable learning experience for us and an incredible way to spend the summer. Some of the most memorable moments include making our first prototype of Darth, using the angle grinder, struggling to troubleshoot the issue of the ghost motors for ages, Jenny’s DAILY Paul ham sandwiches and learning how to say Eifion’s name!

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Thank you

A huge thank you to the DigiFAB leads (Dr Becky Greenaway and Professor Klaus Hellgardt), their graduate students (Annabel Basford, Benjamin Egleston, Ciaran O’Brien) and the Hackspace team (especially David Miller) for their support in making this hackathon happen, and many thanks also to DigiFAB for organising, and DigiFAB and the Department of Chemistry for funding.

Hack it! Reflecting on the 2021 DigiFAB Hackathon

The three members of team Turbidimeter in the Hackspace working on their projectUndergraduate students Kin Weng Chao and Yuchen Lou (both Chemistry) and Way Gene Hoo (Chemical Engineering) took part in this year’s DigiFAB Hackathon Challenge. Here they tell us more about the challenge, how they hacked it and what they learnt along the way.

By Kin Weng Chao, Yuchen Lou and Way Gene Hoo

Exploring beyond the undergraduate lab

As undergraduate Chemistry students we’re usually based in South Kensington. This Hackathon looked interesting because it presented an opportunity to get involved in the new DigiFAB Institute and Advanced Hackspace, and explore our Department’s space at White City. The challenge also looked very cool, allowing us to learn about and play around with new techniques, like 3D printing.

The undergraduate laboratory format is somewhat fixed; we often take those table-top setups, equipment and sensors for granted. Research beyond undergraduate level, however – or even problem solving in general – may be quite different, and require specialised equipment. This was the challenge we were confronted with on our first day of the Hackathon. Reaching a solution was rather straightforward – just do it yourself! The actual process of getting to the end resolution, however, was not so straightforward. The project gave us a taste of the world of design engineering, and it was really a reminder that you don’t have to be a professional to take charge of a seemingly impossible problem in need of solving.

The challenge

Our challenge was to make a small, functional turbidimeter (which is a device that measures the cloudiness – or the amount of suspended particle – in a solution). Commercially available turbidimeters are often either too large to fit in a normal sized reactor and/or too expensive for effective experimentation in an academic research context, so this was an interesting, real-world project.

Nephelometers, and their close cousin turbidimeters, are often used in monitoring water quality and air levels. They also have applications in the chemical and wine industries. As an example, we were given a commercially available nephelometer, which uses the open-source electronic prototyping platform, Ardruino. This nephelometer worked by shining infrared (IR) light at a 90° angle to a sensor – in this case a phototransistor (PTR). If more insoluble particles were present in the solution, then there was a higher degree of scattering. Some scattered light went into the PTR, allowing more current to pass through, and the process could be quantitatively detected allowing us to work out the turbidity of the solution.

An iterative design process

We took an iterative approach to designing our prototype; all we could gather initially were pictures of proprietary instruments only somewhat resembling what we had in mind. Using some fundamental aspects of the nephelometer, we constructed our first prototype pretty quickly, viewing it as a flexible testing apparatus which would allow us to refine and identify the ideal design parameters (for example, the optimum distance between the emitter and the receiver, the angles between them and the optimum resistance that we would need to use).

Next, we conducted various tests – from using glass sphere suspension for calibration, to using tape and glue for troubleshooting – using our findings to construct the second prototype. This methodology worked well for us since we were working with easily repeatable, quick and inexpensive methods like 3D printing and laser cutting. Our initial designs were also kept as simple as possible with the goal of having a functional device before optimising it and adding extra features.

With every test, we got answers, which led to more questions and consequently more prototype designs. With limited capabilities, time and resources a major aspect of our project involved compromising and taking risks with our ideas, knowing that some may not work. In the end we settled on our fourth prototype, which was waterproof, could be calibrated, had better resolution and was smaller compared to the commercial nephelometer initially presented to us. We also devised a Python-Arduino interface to make it more user-friendly.

Level up

This was a great, practical challenge for us because we had to build everything from scratch, including: choosing the components, soldering and wiring them; designing the circuitry and determining the resistance to use; designing and 3D printing the casing; carrying out waterproof testing, and much more – it drew on a lot of different skills and techniques. We started the process with only a little confidence in these skills, and by the end we’d had a really good practical experience of them all.

The infrastructure at Imperial’s Hackspace is just awesome – they have multiple 3D printing machines, a chemistry/biology lab which allowed us to carry simple testing and data collection with our probe, and everything you need to do the soldering and wiring of the components. Not to mention we saw many aeronautic students in there using some very big machines! (Unfortunately, we didn’t need to use these machines for our projects, but we’d have loved to have had a reason to check them out!)

The 2021 Hackathon teams working in the Hackspace

The DigiFAB leads and graduate students, and the Hackspace team, provided us with brilliant introductions and tutorials for the devices and software we needed to use – we asked them loads of questions and they not only provided suggestions and advice, but were also happy to spend time teaching us anything we needed to know to make our project work. When we were fabricating the prototypes, the team recommended Fusion 360 as the design programme, and also guided us to a tutorial they’d made for it. Using the tutorial, we were able to make the model and successfully 3D printed the prototype. We were also given training on soldering. These skills were vital in order to produce the final product, which had soldered logic boards and probes. Other skills we learned from the Hackspace team included operating the laser cutter and the CNC machine. In fact, most of the progress we achieved could not have been possible without Hackspace’s support.

How to hack

Aside from picking up practical tech skills, the experience was also a valuable exercise in hacking that helped us to learn from the prototyping and design process – to keep on iterating, even if the idea sounds ridiculous! We also tried to make best use of everyone’s time and skills by avoiding duplication of work and having schedules – sticking to our internal deadlines was important motivation for a short-term, fast-paced hackathon like this, so it was useful in terms of teamwork and communication of ideas too.

This project completely changed our perspectives. Before it started, some of the team were afraid that they didn’t have enough knowledge – one of our team members was a first year chemistry student! But afterwards we realised that inexperience was not a problem at all, or rather, there was no such thing as “knowledgeable enough” or “fully ready” for any project – you just need to learn along the way and pick up any necessary skills that will help the project succeed. The challenge gave us a taste of what research projects are like, and we loved it! It made us more open to unknown territory and wanting to challenge ourselves with projects in other disciplines. Our team-mate Kin actually got involved in a Life Sciences project afterwards and also applied to a lab course in the Faculty of Medicine. “Looking back, I certainly wouldn’t have done any of these things if it wasn’t for the Hackathon project”, they said. “Thank you again DifiFAB for such an amazing opportunity!”

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Thank you

A huge thank you to the DigiFAB leads (Dr Becky Greenaway and Professor Klaus Hellgardt), their graduate students (Annabel Basford, Benjamin Egleston, Ciaran O’Brien) and the Hackspace team (especially David Miller) for their support in making this hackathon happen, and many thanks also to DigiFAB for organising, and DigiFAB and the Department of Chemistry for funding.

Reflections on life as a PhD student and a Geoffrey Wilkinson Prize Scholar

A photograph of FilipChemistry PhD student, Filip Aniés, was awarded a Geoffrey Wilkinson Prize Studentship in 2018 to pursue postgraduate research under the joint supervision of Professors Martin Heeney and John de Mello. To mark the centenary of Sir Geoffrey Wilkinson’s birth this year, Filip has written reflections on his PhD experiences so far, and on the impact that the studentship has had on his research and career. He also gives some tips on applying for PhD study.

Sir Geoffrey Wilkinson, born on 14 July 1921, completed his PhD at Imperial in 1946, was Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at Imperial from 1956-96, and was awarded the 1973 Chemistry Nobel Prize. The Wilkinson Charitable Foundation generously supports an Imperial PhD studentship in his memory.

By Filip Aniés

My journey to PhD study at Imperial

In a way, my journey to becoming a chemistry researcher started in October 2014, as I arrived from Sweden to undertake undergraduate studies in Chemistry at Imperial. With no personal contacts at Imperial – or at all in the UK – it was a big step to take, but I was excited about the idea of studying abroad, as well as the opportunity to join a university with a great reputation for research quality, and a department with a solid history as a contributor to chemical science. Throughout my undergraduate studies, I always found it particularly inspiring to come across facts and examples in various lecture courses or textbooks which had been discovered in the very department that I was part of! Not the least, of course, Sir Geoffrey Wilkinson’s discoveries, which popped up on multiple occasions, such as in the context of organometallic chemistry.

Through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Programme (UROP) I had the opportunity to try out academic research in the Department as soon as my third year of undergraduate studies ended. I thoroughly enjoyed working in such an ambitious and innovative environment, and started looking for a PhD position whilst carrying out my Master’s research project. Knowing this, my supervisor informed me of an inorganic chemistry studentship funded by the Wilkinson Charitable Foundation, which seemed relevant to me. We applied together, and I was overwhelmed when my application was accepted, as it meant that I would be able to stay at Imperial and continue carrying out research!

Life as a PhD student

My research in the Heeney group focuses on the synthesis of various functional materials built partly or fully from inorganic components. Compared to some other PhD projects, my research spans a relatively wide range of materials, including silver nanoparticles and carborane compounds. Being a synthetic chemist means that I spend much of my time in the lab, walking around all day embodying the general stereotype of a scientist in a white lab coat, boiling colourful solutions in round bottomed flasks. Of course, this has been difficult under pandemic restrictions (unfortunately a bathtub doesn’t qualify as adequate lab space, so working from home is made difficult!), but on the other hand, a lot of time was freed up for much needed reading and writing: towards student assignments, research papers, preparation and background reading for my own research, or simply keeping up to date with discoveries related to my field.

A series of solutions of plasmonic silver nanoprisms of increasing size
A series of solutions of plasmonic silver nanoprisms of increasing size

I feel very fortunate having ended up in the department and research group where I am. Conducting research at the Department of Chemistry places you in an incredibly ambitious academic environment and provides access to world-class facilities and equipment, and I am part of a very fun and supportive research group with brilliant group members. Furthermore, I enjoy a lot of freedom in shaping my own research, whilst still having a lot of support and feedback from my supervisor. One of the things I enjoy the most with academic research in general is the interdisciplinary and international aspects, as most research is more-or-less collaborative. This context has allowed me to gain new perspectives and ideas from materials scientists and physicists based in places such as France, Australia, and Saudi Arabia. I’m also enjoying the general flexibility that comes with PhD studies, and my favourite PhD motto is: “Every day is a Saturday, but you work Saturdays.” (Of course, some people prefer a more standard 9-5 style routine, but I have yet to grow up…)

Opportunities as a Wilkinson scholar

As I repeatedly came across Sir Geoffrey Wilkinson’s discoveries in various lecture courses during my undergraduate studies, I was often reminded of his legacy, and his role in making the Department of Chemistry what it is today. Considering Wilkinson’s remarkable contributions to the chemical sciences and his strong ties to the Department, I felt very honoured to be awarded a studentship in his name. Furthermore, it is safe to say that had it not been for the generous support of the Wilkinson Charitable Foundation, I would not have been able to carry out research studies at Imperial. In addition to general financial support, the Foundation has also provided support for a research visit at NTNU in Trondheim, Norway, and via occasional catch-ups with board members, who have always been both curious and encouraging about my research.

Tips for others thinking of pursuing a PhD

The research group is a make-or-break: Make sure to seek out a supervisor who is both supportive of their students, and also able to provide good opportunities for you as an aspiring researcher. A friendly research group is also important to create a positive environment. It can be difficult to know in advance whether a person is a good supervisor, or a group is friendly, so approach the supervisor directly to express your interest in their research and potentially doing a PhD, and if possible, also make contact with someone in the group to ask about their experience.

No funding, no research: Make sure that you know how funding is provided in relevant countries/universities/departments, as it varies a lot. Again, it may be wise to reach out to a supervisor that you would like to work with to ask what opportunities there are in terms of funding – they will be used to navigating this, and may be aware of additional sources of funding.

Get early research experience: Not possible for everyone, but if you’re considering doing a PhD, and you get the opportunity to try out academic research in advance – take it! Not only is it great on your CV, but more importantly, it gives you insight into whether that type of work is for you.

Never mind the topic: Perhaps a controversial piece of advice, and maybe not applicable to everyone and everything, but in my opinion the precise topic of the PhD is less important than many other aspects when choosing a PhD. This is simply because – from my personal point of view – as soon as you really start reading into something, and you reach the limits of current human knowledge or technical possibilities, and you start coming up with ideas of how an existing problem could be approached… that’s the point where everything becomes interesting!

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Don’t Pan(dem)ic! A personal reflection on STEM teaching in higher education during COVID-19

Dr Charlotte Sutherell
Dr Charlotte Sutherell

Dr Charlotte Sutherell is a Senior Teaching Fellow in the Department of Chemistry, and recently won a President’s Awards for Excellence in Teaching. In this blog post she shares her perspectives on higher education teaching over the past year and a half: from the very sudden and unexpected shift to remote learning at the start of the COVID-19 crisis, to broader reflections on how remote teaching has impacted the HE landscape in both positive and negative ways, and why she loves her role in STEM education.

By Dr Charlotte Sutherell

Reaching the end of an academic year always triggers a real mixture of emotions for me, as one pauses and reflects. There’s relief as the pace eases a (small!) notch; satisfaction in what our student and staff community has accomplished; sadness at farewells to graduates despite excitement for their futures; anticipation for the year ahead. Those emotions are even more intense after the extraordinary months of activity we’ve all experienced thanks to the pandemic and the Curriculum Review. I am sure I’m not alone in finding myself reflecting on how my ideas about what we teach, how to do it and what matters most for learning have been shaken up!

I’m currently a Senior Teaching Fellow in Chemistry, specialising in organic and medicinal chemistry, having conducted PhD and postdoctoral research in drug discovery and synthesis. Although it was always tutorial teaching during my PhD at Cambridge that put the biggest smile on my face, a career of HE teaching, separate from academic research, didn’t seem possible. Fortunately a postdoc at Imperial changed that, thanks to a PI who supported my interests, opportunities to teach, and also finding that the College as a whole was supporting dedicated education career paths. I became a Teaching Fellow in 2018 and, apart of course from getting to know our ‘CHEMunity’ of students as individuals and seeing them develop, the constant learning has been the aspect of my role I’ve enjoyed most.

Don’t Pan(dem)ic!

It’s fair to say, however, that I never expected to have to learn as much, or as quickly, about blended teaching… The initial crisis of moving online is a distant memory now, and my main impression is actually a positive one of the flexibility and empathy demonstrated. A core team was involved in creating a framework for assessments and the summer term, and the willingness of everyone – both students and staff – to give things a go, support each other and learn from the hiccups was crucial to getting through. The early recognition that more pastoral support and casual online activities were needed to try and maintain our sense of community helped cohesion.

Learning from the summer, as a Department we made a couple of key decisions that have proved crucial in letting us successfully negotiate this year. The timetable was redesigned (many, many times) to support sudden switches between delivery modes. Every lab had a remote alternative created, with huge efforts from staff to design safe-for-home or online experiments that would achieve the learning outcomes, including the physical assembly of our ‘Lab in a Box’ kits.  We chose to employ a standard model and set of technological tools for multi-mode learning, breaking lectures into shorter pre-recorded videos and incorporating engagement points in Blackboard as a minimum for active learning. This framework gave students consistency and enabled staff to focus on content creation and incorporating active learning, rather than needing to work out every aspect of design or technology. The huge efforts of lecturers and staff were ably supported by an outstanding team of GTAs who partnered staff in areas like lab design, student training and transition, or supported the upload of the online material, and the assistance of the FoNS Ed Tech team.

Personally I’ve found aspects of remote teaching a significant challenge, particularly small group settings like tutorials where dialogue and peer-to-peer interaction are so essential. Whilst tools like Whiteboard.fi have let one create personal connections and see individual work, I cannot wait to finally get students together and collaborating on physical whiteboards again! There have been advantages too. I’ve found active learning exercises from my lectures worked better using Padlet than in person, as students had time to think and reflect on material, could receive individual feedback and learn from their peers’ posts. I’ve also been able to bring my interest in giving students authentic learning experiences into our medicinal chemistry courses, thanks to online open-science initiatives around SARS-CoV-2 drug-discovery! Using crystal structures and screening data from Diamond and the COVID Moonshot project, our second and third years have been working to analyse crystal structures and design molecules as part of a global community of scientists.

Moving forwards?

A crucial influence on my teaching practice this year, and in general, has been the MEd in University Learning and Teaching, organised by Imperial’s Educational Development Unit (EDU). This is not just due to the fantastic teaching of the EDU team but the experience of being a student again and not ‘the expert’. I too have been watching pre-recorded lectures (I’d never understood the appeal amongst my students of playing recordings at 1.25x speed before) and found myself needing to overcome strong inhibitions to contribute during live online sessions. The unsettling experiences of grappling with new writing styles or the emotional impact of feedback and grades have helped me consider how students interact with my teaching and how we can best help them manage and productively use the discomfort of learning. The joys and frustrations of learning online have fed back into my own practice, highlighting the absence of the less tangible learning from being in a space with others and the casual chats where one realises you are not alone in your struggles or ideas.

I claim no special knowledge or insight, and our experiences in Chemistry are not uncommon, but I’m certain that many of the innovations and necessities of this year will be influencing us going forward and there is more change ahead. It’s put a sharp spotlight on how to best use the time we have face-to-face with students; how to achieve active learning with large groups, where lectures might be flipped, is a source of vigorous discussion. It is essential that we keep listening to students about their experiences. Whilst their ability to cope with this year has been admirable, it has been hugely demanding. Some have talked about enjoying engaging with lecture material at a more individual pace but it has been a challenging medium for others; people have had to relearn how to take notes; some have shared the difficulty of speaking up in the virtual space while others have found it liberating. We have all missed the social interactions that are vital in learning. There is not a single perfect solution to how we resolve these tensions, but I’m sure that we need to continue to be this creative and adaptable. I’m looking forward to continuing to learn from the work and innovation in teaching going on throughout the College.  For a moment though, I can pause and reflect and feel very proud of all that our students and my colleagues have done to reach the end of this year.

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Mentors and mentees: the value of student-led engagement activities

Accelerate, a student-led STEM initiative (profiled on Imperial News back in January 2021), has recently been highly commended for the Student Award for Excellence in Societal Engagement at Imperial’s recent President’s Awards.

In this blog post, co-founders Jasneet (Physics) and Simran (Chemical Engineering) tell us more about their engagement and entrepreneurial activities, and reflect on what it was like to win the award only a year after launching.

Jasneet Kaur Taak and Simran Sangla
Jasneet Kaur Taak and Simran Sangla

By Simran Sangla and Jasneet Kaur Taak

During the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020 we realised more than ever the importance of creating opportunities for people, regardless of their socio-economic background or the colour of their skin. Accelerate was the outcome of this realisation, created as a platform that provides students and graduates with equal opportunity. Drawing on our own experiences, and coming from BAME backgrounds ourselves, we rarely saw initiatives focused on helping BAME students attain top university offers or high positioned job roles. Thus, we started Accelerate in the hope of bridging the diversity gap for ethnic minorities through mentoring and support, aiming to build a supportive community of mentors and mentees that helps students gain access to resources and opportunities that we wish someone had told us about when starting our own academic and career journeys.

The Accelerate journey

The best part of the Accelerate journey has come from being able to see the value added to students’ experiences, and seeing how the platform has helped them. It’s kept us busy – in our pilot 1-1 Mentorship Scheme we matched over fifty BAME mentees to a mentor! Additionally, going down this route with a friend (and now co-founder!) has been an exciting experience as we have similar values and share the same vision and passion for Accelerate, which has made all the important milestones of our entrepreneurial journey even more enjoyable. Though we have had some really positive experiences, such as partnering with Imperial’s Physics department, there have also been some challenges along the way, such as difficulties with time commitments as well as cost and resource restrictions.

To navigate through both times of adversity and joy, we have used skills and experiences gained from our degrees, especially the entrepreneurial modules. Therefore, it was an honour to be listed on Queen Mary University London’s (QMUL) alumni site as one of the five entrepreneurial initiatives for enterprise week! From utilising this skill set, our aspirations beyond our degree have become clearer as we are both very much interested in eventually working as full-time entrepreneurs. One of the areas we would love to continue our focus on is towards creating social impact by working with young people in the field of education to empower and mentor them in becoming successful leaders.

Image taken from one of the Accelerate Networking events. Blue background with the heading ‘Why is networking important?’ followed by a series of text in speech bubbles saying: “An opportunity to learn new knowledge from others, gain insight into different fields, and exchange ideas”; “Helps you during your job search.”; “Develops relationships that may boost future business or employment opportunities.”; “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”; “Raises your profile and is a way of getting noticed.”; “Provides you with guidance and advice from experienced peers.”; “Allows you to meet prospective mentors, partners and clients.”
Image taken from one of the Accelerate Networking events

Our engagement activities are aimed at young students, ranging from the ages of 14 to 25, targeting those predominately from BAME backgrounds. We’ve created a mentorship scheme, where we match students to a mentor in their field of interest for a three-month period during the university and job application season. We have also hosted a series of panel discussions, workshops and networking sessions comprising students and professionals from different industries. In order to bring these events to fruition, we have been featured on podcasts, partnered with the likes of QMUL, and collaborated with initiatives including icanyoucantoo.

The perks of STEM engagement

STEM and BAME engagement is important to us because we have first-hand experience of seeing how instrumental it is to have a mentor who gives you invaluable advice all whilst helping to shape your career path. We now see the relevance of the BAME and women in STEM talks hosted at our schools and universities as they help motivate you to pursue a career in STEM whilst giving you a taste of what to expect. This type of engagement makes you aware that, even though you may be the only woman or the only person of colour in the room, this should not stop you from asserting your presence and speaking up. During our later years at university, and at work, we have seen the importance of diversity through the broad range of ideas and experiences it brings, and that “anything is possible with hard work”, a phrase commonly used in STEM engagement events.

The benefits of being involved in STEM engagement are that you get to expand your network to people in the STEM industry who are working on really innovative projects – from starting their own business to working in industries such as Decentralised Finance (DeFi). It’s always stimulating to have discussions with others about STEM – and it’s often talking with others that you develop new and innovative ideas! We have been lucky enough to give our STEM insights in radio interviews and at The Cabinet Office’s Commission STEM Roundtable event.

Volunteering is rewarding

We are humbled to have worked with and supported so many people over the duration of a year, and this process of starting Accelerate has had an overwhelmingly positive impact on us! Over the past year, we can thankfully say Accelerate has not only turned us into better leaders with a better style of communication and appreciation for time commitments, it has also made us more compassionate individuals. From creating and developing Accelerate, we can see the impact that just one networking event can have when it comes to inspiring students and helping them achieve their goals. It gives us immense pride to know that the young people that have used our mentoring scheme have gone on to secure internships at companies such as Rolls Royce.

Volunteering your time on initiatives such as Accelerate allows you to help the next generation of STEM leaders. It also helps you individually: from building your network and becoming part of an inspiring community, to gaining exposure, fresh perspectives, ideas and approaches. As we progress through our careers, there is always a lot of encouragement around developing your leadership, communication and networking skills – and where better to do this than as part of a rewarding initiative that gives back to the community!

Awards such as the President’s Award are so important to us, as they help increase knowledge and understanding of the work we do. Not only do we look forward to helping more students and recent graduates as our network expands, but we also hope our story will inspire others to pursue their own ventures!

PyProblems for undergraduate physics

Plasma physics PhD student Lloyd James teamed up with Dr Yasmin Andrew to run a postgraduate student project developing Python-based simulation problems rooted in the undergraduate physics curriculum. In this blog post the duo tell us more about the project.

By Dr Yasmin Andrew and Lloyd James

In 2019 we recognised that many physics students’ second year laboratory courses, final year research projects, and summer UROP projects would directly benefit from more opportunities to develop their coding skills. Students start their undergraduate physics studies with a very wide range of abilities, experiences and backgrounds in coding. Most students have no programming experience at the beginning of their first year. Python, and coding more generally, is not only an increasingly relied-upon tool in physics research, but also a hugely transferrable skill that opens up doors to other exciting fields such as tech and data science. This was the motivation behind the PyProblems project.

A pedagogical opportunity

In developing questions directly linked to students’ ongoing undergraduate studies, the ‘PyProblems’ initiative would allow them to practice using mathematical and computational skills to solve conceptual and quantitative physics problems. The result has been a stand-alone bank of Python-based physics questions and Jupyter-notebook solutions that students access voluntarily and which helps improve and maintain their coding proficiency and confidence.

Physics PhD students were recruited to work directly with the course and module leaders to develop the problems and solutions, with the only brief being to be both rigorous and creative in the original question design and construction. The project benefitted from these students’ subject knowledge and Python experience, and a valuable outcome for the students was the pedagogical opportunity to develop teaching and learning resources early on in their academic career. The first set of first year problems and solutions was initially released in December 2019 while the second set for some Year 2 and 3 physics courses was completed for the start of the 2020/21 academic year.

A simulation of asteroid trajectories passing Earth
An example graph from the solutions showing a simulation of asteroid trajectories passing Earth

Python Helpdesks

The rollout of the project was supported by a group of physics PhD and final year MSci students who set up a series of hour-long Python Helpdesks in the Blackett Computer Suite on a voluntary basis. The purpose of these helpdesks was to directly support students in working through the PyProblems questions, and also provide help for any other coding questions they might have. This student-led initiative was so successful it was adopted by the Department of Physics as part of the ongoing undergraduate student support over the 2020/21 academic year, switching to an online Teams format.

Student-led collaboration with staff

This is an exciting time for the PyProblems initiative, which has now reached the stage of planning for future extension of the resources to the Year 3 and 4 modules and possible collaborations with other Imperial departments, as well as external higher education institutions.

It’s an excellent example of a postgraduate student-led collaboration with staff, which showcases how PhD students can directly contribute to the development of high-quality teaching and learning resources with their valuable subject and technical knowledge.

Find out more

The teamwork behind Teams for teaching

In this blog post Helen Walkey, Education Insight and Evaluation Analyst from the FoNS Ed Tech team, reflects on how Microsoft Teams has not only become an integral part of staff collaboration, but also the ways in which it has underpinned Imperial’s teaching activities over the past year.

By Helen Walkey

With the shift to multi-modal delivery of teaching and learning, interactions that would have taken place in lecture theatres, tutorial rooms and physical groupwork spaces needed to be recreated online. Into the spotlight came MS Teams, used previously in College as a tool for collaboration, but new to the suite of supported tools for teaching and learning.

Students responded positively to its introduction for summer term teaching, during the first lockdown, frequently listing it as one of the tools that worked best to support different learning activities.

A teams effort

For the academic year 2020-2021, the ICT Student Lifecycle Product Team led a successful cross-College project to create standardised MS Teams sites for teaching and learning for each taught module. The aim was to support the delivery of synchronous and interactive sessions designed by teaching staff, and to provide a consistent experience for students.

ICT, EdTech teams, the Central Timetabling Support Office and Curriculum Data Management Team worked effectively to define requirements, create and test an automated process for generating standardised MS Teams sites for modules, with membership fed from the student information system, Banner. Links were made with the timetabling software, Celcat and the virtual learning environment, Blackboard, to provide a joined-up experience for students. Moira Sarsfield and I, from the FoNS EdTech team, represented the Faculty on the project team. Additional manual tailoring requested by departments was done by EdTech team staff and Graduate Teaching Assistants. Departmental Education Office teams helped to troubleshoot issues with data from Banner. The ICT team produced and published extensive help material describing how MS Teams can be used to support remote teaching and learning, based on input from Faculty EdTech and teaching staff.

A huge impact

The automated Teams set-up process has been used by all departments in the Faculty of Natural Sciences and has had a huge impact on both staff and students, who have used Teams for many different learning activities, for example: live Q&A sessions covering taught content, tutorials, problem classes, seminars, team-based learning sessions and even online poster sessions.

A screenshot from Teams showing different Physics modules

Euan Doidge, Senior Teaching Fellow, Department of Chemistry reported the benefits for staff: “The process developed was a great time-saver at a busy time of the academic year. By instantly generating Teams and applying our template across our 30+ modules we avoided the manual and repetitive creation of individual Teams/channels and potential errors when doing this. The auto-enrolment of specific students and staff as Team members reassured us that people would have the correct access immediately avoiding many careful user additions. The Teams were easily maintained centrally, giving us an overview of all remote/synchronous teaching, and allowed individual modules to focus on teaching knowing everything was already set up properly. The consistent format of channels and Breakout Rooms across all module Teams made training of staff and students easy and allowed everyone to quickly get on with teaching and learning instead of navigating or creating several unique Teams”.

This was echoed by Jerzy Snelling van Buren, Undergraduate Administrator, Department of Life Sciences, who said: “Having processes to automatically generate Teams sites and Blackboard courses for modules then populate them with the relevant student lists from Banner has been really useful. It’s been hassle free and has saved us time”.

The student perspective

From a student perspective, when asked about activities they had found most interesting, one reported: “The Q&A sessions [in Teams] have been helpful and in fact likely increased lecturer/student contact compared to a normal term – it’s also a good way to see and interact with the other students on the course.”

A screenshot from Teams showing how it can be used to encourage cohort collaboration - a tutor has posted a message announcing a virtual Cook-Along social event

From this and other student feedback, it is clear that students have really missed social interactions during the pandemic and another positive outcome of using Teams for teaching and learning is that it is playing an important part in keeping them connected.

Find out more

Presenting to parliamentarians at the STEM for Britain poster competition

A profile photo of Ben LewisFive early-career researchers from Imperial recently presented their research at the annual STEM for Britain parliamentary poster competition.

Ben Lewis, who works in the Vilar and Kuimova research groups in the Department of Chemistry, and the Vannier group at the MRC London Institute of Medical Sciences, won the Gold Award in the Chemistry category for his research: ‘G-Quadruplexes: Unravelling the next knot in the DNA story’.

In this blog post he reflects on what it was like to present his work to MPs and Lords at the Palace of Westminster.

By Ben Lewis

As PhD students, we often get opportunities to present our work to other researchers – whether within Imperial or beyond. It is very unusual, though, for us to have the chance to present to MPs and Lords. That’s one of the unique features of the STEM for Britain poster competition, held annually for early-career researchers by the Parliamentary and Scientific committee.

In normal years, the event takes place at the Palace of Westminster itself and brings together a range of scientists from academia and industry with parliamentarians. Sadly, this year an in-person event was not an option – but it was particularly amazing that the competition could still happen in spite of the ongoing pandemic. We still got to engage with one another – just through Zoom and the screens of our laptops.

An impressive diversity of research

This competition also brings together all fields of science, with categories for Chemistry, Biology, Physics, Engineering and Mathematics – a great opportunity to hear about a range of work, which isn’t always the case in many of our field-segregated conferences and seminars. Reading posters on topics from tackling traumatic injury, to simulating seismic effects on Mars shows the breadth of impressive work going on at institutions all around the UK.

Within the Chemistry category that I entered, I was honoured to be selected as one of ten finalists to present my work at the event itself – and delighted to have been awarded the Gold Medal for Chemistry. Even in just this one category, the diversity of research was fascinating – everything from producing nanomaterials to treating brain cancers was on display.

Bringing complex research to life

We all faced a similar challenge – taking our very detailed and involved research and presenting it as a poster and a three-minute presentation that would speak to the broad audience this event has – including a number of parliamentarians who are interested to hear about the world of research, but have no science background themselves. It was particularly great to see Andy Slaughter – the local MP for the White City campus, where I am based – in attendance for the award ceremony, in addition to a range of other MPs and Lords. Knowing there are so many parliamentarians wanting to hear more about the latest scientific research is very heartening. Giving our usual academic presentations just wouldn’t be right for an audience like this.

In my case, that meant taking all the unusual concepts which make up my very interdisciplinary PhD – including G-Quadruplex DNA structures and Fluorescence Lifetime Imaging Microscopy, not concepts that most people, even scientists, have ever heard of – and bringing them to life very quickly. Really what my research is about is finding the unusual DNA structures we’re interested in inside living cells – a challenge which is very tough, but by using a specialist method we have been able to achieve this and are now trying to unravel the important effects they have on a wide range of biological processes.

Thanks to the Graduate School!

Thankfully, being in my final year, I’ve had the chance to attempt this before. Especially helpful were events run by Imperial’s Graduate School, challenging students to present their work in a brief and easily understood way. These courses and competitions are a really great opportunity to find the core of what makes your research exciting and how to put it across in an engaging manner. The only way to get better is to have a go. At Imperial and beyond there are plenty of opportunities out there, so putting yourself forward is something I’d recommend to any PhD student.

Why communication is key

It is taking part in events like STEM for Britain which make it obvious that if we can’t tell a wider audience about all the research we do in a way they understand and find interesting, our work will never achieve its potential. That means being able to tell the wider public, and especially being able to tell policy makers, why they should care. At the very least, these are people who help decide what funding future scientific research receives, but more importantly they are the people who can help to take what we have discovered and do something about it on a wider stage. This ability to make a much bigger difference is part of the reason why, when I soon finish my PhD, I’ve become interested in being more involved at this interface between science and the world of policy.

Being part of a competition like this is very rewarding. There is prize money (which is always appreciated!) but there’s also the platform to get others excited about the research you devote your time to; the chance to see what lots of other researchers are discovering; and an opportunity to improve a skill set which I believe is hugely important to us all as researchers. It is an incredible honour to have had our research recognised at such a prestigious event, and it only gives me more motivation to get back to the lab to see what we can accomplish next.

Find out more

For further information, you can view Ben’s poster and watch his 3-minute presentation, and check out the work of the other prize-winners here.

Redesigning Blackett: A student’s experience

Anthea MacIntosh-LaRocqueIn this blog post, undergraduate Physics student, Anthea MacIntosh-LaRocque, reflects on her involvement in a StudentShapers project that focused on redesigning the two main foyer areas of the Blackett Building. The team included Student Liaison Officer, Dr Yasmin Andrew and postgraduate student Max Hart. Each member was keen to transform these spaces – not only in order to improve students’ opinions about their educational environment, but also to encourage a better sense of belonging and community.

Mixed feelings

Walking around Blackett Laboratory during my first year always left me with a mixed bag of feelings. On the one hand, I was walking through halls bursting with innovative research and discovery. On the other hand, the building was outdated and disconnected from the very people who make the Department tick.

Take the cluster of black-and-white photographs hung in front of the main lecture theatre. In each frame sits a past Nobel Prize winner from the Department, and some of the photographs also show our Heads of Department over the years. These images are unquestionably important, but they are almost exclusively men and consequently not representative of the rich diversity of the Department I see around me today (or, furthermore, of the increased diversity we hope to have in the Department moving forwards).

On top of this, as students we never worked in the building. Instead, we’d scurry over to the library in search of some desk space and comfortable chairs that Blackett just wasn’t able to offer.

Blackett building foyer area
Blackett building foyer area on Level 2, before the redesign project

So, you can imagine how excited I was when I was approached by Dr Yasmin Andrew last March to work in a student-led team redesigning the two main foyer areas of Blackett over the summer, as part of a StudentShapers project. Obviously, as with all things over the past year, plans had to be changed in line with lockdowns, and the project was taken online before it had even begun. My first meeting with the other members of the team – Yasmin, Max and Josie – was over a Teams call in early June.

The process

The only “boundary conditions” we were given for the project was the location. We weren’t even told a budget, simply that we needed to come up with a student-centred design that would cater to the twenty-first century Imperial student.

Building up a portfolio of perspectives on the space was essential in getting the project off the ground. We drafted up a survey to send to our fellow Physics undergrads and postgrads, asking a mixture of questions. It included survey “staples” asking what students did and didn’t like about the space, alongside more profound questions probing how the new space might incite belonging and community.

1960s inspired colour scheme for the project
Our 1960s inspired colour scheme

Using the survey as our basis, Max and I created two different designs using an online design software programme called FloorPlanner (think The Sims, but without all the people). These designs formed a foundation for subsequent one-to-one staff interviews and student focus groups. The ideas that came out of these discussions served as the creative fuel for the rest of the project. Eventually, we refined our designs and agreed on a colour scheme. The 1960s saw the completion of the construction of the Blackett laboratory building (1961) and a rapid expansion of the Department under under Professor Blackett’s leadership. We decided a 1960s theme to the refurbishment would respect and honour the historical time the department has to this era. You would be surprised how engrossed a team of physicists can become in details as minute as the colour of a table!

We presented our designs to departmental staff to get some more feedback, and then finally sent them along to the Building Operations team in early September. You can view some of the design renders that Max and I came up with over the summer below – click to make them larger:

Seeing it through to the end

During this academic year I’ve been lucky enough to keep working on the project: liaising with furniture designers, providing further student input, and communicating the work that was done to the wider Department, including my peers.

Ultimately, I feel very privileged to have been able to make an impact on a space that my peers and I will soon be interacting in on a day-to-day basis — public-health measures permitting, of course. It’s not certain whether the building works and furniture will be in place by the time we are back on campus. However, rest assured, behind-the-scenes implementation is already underway. I’m also very encouraged by the fact that the StudentShapers leadership has proactively encouraged student input, right down to the very last plug socket and blackboard.

Design proposal for Blackett Level 3
Design proposal for Blackett Level 3

Not all sunshine and daisies

It’s undeniable that working remotely has both its perks and its downsides. The flexibility it provides allows me to manage my working hours in a way that complements both my studies and the project’s pace. Having said that, we all found it difficult not being able to visit Blackett during the designing phase. While we had all spent plenty of time there, and had access to floor plans, visualising the spaces still proved challenging. Questions like, “Is that wall painted?”, and “Do we have a bench there at the moment?”, were recurring guests in our meetings.

Reflecting on the experience

Overall, participating in this project has been one of the highlights of my time at Imperial so far. Working on a project so different from anything I would have encountered during my degree has given me a prime opportunity to learn new skills, to think on my feet and expand the breadth of my university experience. Learning how to interact with staff, deal with data in the social sciences, and develop a project using constructive criticism are just some of the skills I’ve developed during this project.

Topping that is the feeling of satisfaction that comes with making a long-lasting impact on the physics community I am a part of. I think the décor we chose really speaks to this sense of community. We aimed to honour Blackett’s rich history, whilst staying relevant to the Department of Physics we know today. Once we can return to campus, I’m looking forward to watching how the spaces we are working on become the Department’s social hubs, and improved areas for collaborative learning. On a personal level, I can’t wait to be back on campus and make use of these spaces for much needed down-time between lectures and labs!

It’s what you make of it

In my opinion the StudentShapers scheme, which runs a plethora of student-centred projects ranging from curriculum reviews to interior redesigns, is something all students should consider getting involved in. Not only does it provide you with the opportunity to take part in something not conventionally related to your degree, it also instils in you a sense of agency over your experience at Imperial. Moreover, the project has been a reminder to me that ultimately my time at Imperial is what I make of it. It’s so important to seek out exciting opportunities like this, to get stuck in, and to soak up everything the university has to offer.

By Anthea MacIntosh-LaRocque

Find out more about StudentShapers

The StudentShapers programme is open to all Imperial students across all Departments.  Find out more about how to get involved.