research

Meet Sebastian

As a PhD student and winner of the Eli and Britt Harari Graphene Enterprise 2016 Award, Sebastian is tackling the global issue of water scarcity and looking at ways to improve the quality of people’s lives with graphene.

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Sebastian began his career at Manchester where he studied for his undergraduate degree in Material Science. He had the opportunity to do an industrial placement year which helped to boost his CV. The placement also gave him the chance to experience what industry is like and helped inform his decision to pursue a PhD.

“I’ve loved my time here. I started my undergraduate degree at Manchester and I met some great academics and friends. Getting experience in my final year to work with graphene was great. It was a dream come true. I joined the University a year after the Nobel Prize was awarded, so you could say I was eyeing it up from the beginning!

“I applied for the Eli and Britt Harari Graphene Enterprise Award not really thinking I’d win. But I thought it was worth the shot and would be a good experience to think through the idea of seeing how a project could be commercialised. I took on the challenge and discovered how there was space for my idea.

“Winning the award was a big surprise, but it was great and very exciting. As part of my graphene NOWNANO CDT (centre for doctoral training), I’m working on a desalination project which looks at incorporating sustainable energy to tackle the global issue of water scarcity. This project in particular caught my eye as what motivates me the most is working on technology which improves the quality of living and people’s lives.

“The aim of the game is to think how technology can solve problems and have an influence for the better in the world. I’ve been interested in science for as long as I can remember and I have two main channels of interest. One being the curiosity side of science and analysing how things work in particular ways. The other is more focused on how human history has evolved and how technology has factored in to it. There are big problems to overcome, but I think being on the verge and change in technology is really exciting – particularly at Manchester.”

You can view Sebastian’s full story here

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My Heritage Hero: Alan Turing

Alan Turing is one of the world’s most important historic figures as well one of The University’s greatest icons.  As a pioneering mathematician, computer scientist and theoretical biologist, he is one of the most accomplished scientists of all time and his work has affected everyone alive today.  Alan Turing truly represents the Manchester spirit and history with its’ commitment to great example of scientific excellence.

Cracking the Enigma Code

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Turing’s most famous work was carried out during World War II in Bletchley Park, the home of Britain’s efforts to break German codes encrypted using Enigma machines.  To reveal the messages in the codes, Turing led a team of cryptanalysts to develop a codebreaking machine.  This became renowned as the world’s first computer and heralded Turing as the parent of Computer Science.  Most historians agree that his inventions shortened the war by at least two years and saved over 14 million lives, making him one of the 20th Century’s biggest heroes.

A little known fact about Turing is that as well as being a mathematical mastermind, he was also a high-level athlete, and occasionally ran 64 km from Bletchley to London.

After the war, Turing moved to London where he continued to expand his research into computers and produced a paper detailing the first designs of a stored-program computer.

Creator of Artificial Intelligence

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Turing came to the Victoria University of Manchester in 1948 where he was appointed Reader in the School of Mathematics, and soon became Deputy Director of its Computing Machine Laboratory.  During his time in Manchester, he produced the Manchester Mark 1 – the first stored-program computer ever made.

Whilst in Manchester, Turing conducted some of the first mathematical investigations into Artificial Intelligence (A.I.), which describes a man-made machine that can perceive its environment, learn, and be able to problem solve.  Turing’s theory of computation states that a machine capable of switching between simple symbols, such as the binary ‘0’ and ‘1’, could simulate any mathematical deduction or process of formal reasoning.  This theory, in addition to other discoveries in cybernetics and neurology, led researchers to hypothesise about creating an electronic brain based on binary code.

AI raises many questions about thought, how we define intelligence, and the differences between human and digital consciousness.  To address these Turing created the Turing test, where a machine can be said to be intelligent and “think” if a human in conversation with it couldn’t tell if it was human or not.

Over half a century later, A.I. is still a subject of much debate and controversy, but the Turing test continues to be a significant factor in these discussions.

Today, A.I. has hundreds of applications, such as in image recognition, search engines like Google, and even electronic gaming.  A.I. technology is advancing all the time and will have a far greater presence in our lives in the future, as it has the potential to be used in self-driving cars, medical diagnosis, finance, and more.

Persecuted for his sexuality

Just before Christmas in 1951, Turing was walking down Oxford Road when he met Arnold Murray outside what is now the Dancehouse Theatre.  They later entered into a relationship together, which was then revealed by the police whilst investigating a burglary into Turing’s house.  Homosexuality was outlawed at the time and both Turing and Murray were charged with “gross indecency”.

Murray was given a conditional discharge; however, Turing was forced to choose between prison or hormonal treatment to reduce his libido.  He chose the hormonal treatment, which left him impotent and deformed his body, in what is commonly referred to as “chemical castration”.

In addition to this humiliation, he was banned from entering the US, had his security clearance removed, and was forbidden to continue his work for the British signals intelligence agency (GCHQ).

Suicide

Turing’s housekeeper found him dead on 8 June 1954, after he committed suicide by cyanide poisoning.  A half-eaten apple was found beside his bed where he died, leading many to speculate that this was how he ingested the final dose.

Official pardon

In 2012, an online petition for the Government pardon of Alan Turing’s conviction gained over 37,000 signatures.  John Leech, MP for Withington, campaigned for years to pass the bill through Parliament and eventually the Queen pronounced Turing’s pardon in 2014.

Legacy

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Following criticism that it was unjust to pardon just Turing out of the thousands of others who were punished under the same laws for their sexualities, a bill was passed on 31 January 2017 that pardoned all people similarly convicted.  This part of the Policing and Crime Act 2017 is known informally as the ‘Alan Turing Law’.

Tributes to Alan Turing can be found across the world.  A statue of Turing holding an apple is situated in Sackville Park in between the University of Manchester’s Sackville Street Building and Canal Street.   This commemorates Turing as ‘Father of computer science, mathematician, logician, wartime codebreaker, victim of prejudice’, at it reads on the plaque.  In 2007, the University of Manchester’s Alan Turing Building was completed as a new home for the School of Mathematics and parts of the School of Physics and Astronomy, where world-leading research continues seven decades after Turing started his work there.

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To mark the 100th anniversary of his birth, 2012 was designated as the Alan Turing Year with celebrations and tributes across the world.  Manchester City Council worked with the LGBT Foundation to launch the Alan Turing Memorial Award, acknowledges contributors in the fight against homophobia in Manchester.

Reflections of a final year Master’s student

Many of you who are about to enter their third year, will be faced with the decision whether to do a Bachelor’s degree or a Master’s.  There are many factors which will influence your decision and many questions you should ask yourself, such as am I interested in research?  Do I want to study for three or four years?  What do I have to gain from a Master’s?  Is an extra year worth the extra money?  Do I want to prolong the work-hard-play-hard student life of balancing exams and assignments with a busy social life and extracurricular activities?  Or do I want a proper salary and be able to buy avocados and fancy coffee without a shred of guilt?

These are all important questions that should be addressed.  I’m a fourth year Physics student doing a Master’s year, and by no means an expert on whether or not a Master’s is the right choice for you, but perhaps by explaining what my Master’s is like, what I’ve gained from my Master’s and why I chose to do it, it will help you make a more informed decision on whether or not this is the right path for you.

When I first applied to The University of Manchester as spotty 17 year old, I knew very little about what I wanted in terms of my career.  I didn’t even know that I liked Physics that much, but my A-level science grades were good, I knew that Physics degrees were very well respected and gave you a broad skillset, and at the time Brian Cox was making Physics cool with his BBC documentaries full of pretty computer-generated spiral galaxies.

So I applied for an MPhys Physics degree, without really even knowing what an MPhys was and whether it was a good idea, but I knew that it was easier to transfer from the 4 year MPhys to the 3 year BSc, so it seemed sensible.

Fast forward four years later and I’m now sat in the library of the Physics building (pretty much my second home), in the midst of my MPhys research, reflecting on my choice.  The biggest and brightest thing that comes to mind is that the past few years being a student have been the best of my life.  I’ve made the most out of the huge amount of amazing opportunities available to students in this city, such as the awesome student societies, charities, cultural activities and nights out.  I’ve met many marvellous people and have made fantastic friends for life.  I studied abroad in Canada, got a job blogging for the University, learnt loads of new skills, and had a great time along the way.

However, don’t think that time was fun only.  It addition to experiencing the most fun years of my life, my Master’s years have also been the most stressful, sometimes demanding 12 hour work days to stay on top of multiple deadlines, long spells sat in a lonely lab, and evenings spent pulling my hair out over a tricky assignment.  But despite all this, I feel that the huge amount I’ve gained from studying my degree and being a student at UoM has made the blood, sweat and tears all worth it.

Currently I spend two days a week on research, on top of four courses.  My MPhys in Biological Physics investigates how graphene affects bacteria, which contributes to other research efforts aiming to produce new antibacterial materials and ways to kill bacteria.  Most of my time is spent taking data in the lab and analysing this on a computer to try and draw meaningful conclusions.  I regularly talk to world-leaders in this field, have weekly meetings with my supervisor, and even had a terrifying assessment by Sir Novoselov (the graphene Nobel Prize winner guy!).

Despite the cool sounding name of my research (well, cool in my opinion) and amazing opportunities I have to pursue a career in Biological Physics, I’ve learnt that at this stage in my life research isn’t for me, as my passion does not lie in spending long hours alone taking measurements and trying to get various programs to work.  I’ve also started to reconsider my relationship with academia and other ways I could be using my degree, like science communication, enterprise or teaching.  Many of my contemporaries are now considering PhD’s, but 3 or 4 years is a long time for me to commit to something that I’ve learnt that my heart isn’t fully in.

This change of heart is by no means a reason for me to say that my Master’s was a mistake.  On the contrary, I’ve learnt an enormous amount about myself, my likes and dislikes, and some really cool stuff about science, and I can always return to academia in future.  I’ve also learnt that I love being surrounded by bright, enthusiastic and dynamic young people, and I love the flexibility of academia and student life in Manchester.  I’ve picked up loads of transferable skills, amazing friends, new hobbies (like blog writing and climbing), and fantastic memories, all of which I wouldn’t have gained without committing to my 4 year Master’s degree.  I now believe that my experiences, good and bad, have all been opportunities to learn and improve myself, and that sometimes it’s worth taking a risk and trying something new even if you’re not sure about the outcome.  If I’d never have taken the jump and done my MPhys, I never would have learnt these invaluable lessons.

To wrap up, for me, my Master’s has been a great choice and I have no regrets, but this doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for everybody.  It depends hugely on your personality, how you like to live your life, how you like to work, and how you feel about dizzying fluctuations in workload.  But if you have the time and energy to spend another year experiencing the student life in this fun, youthful and exciting university, why not give it a shot and carry on making the most of student life and learn more about yourself?

Top tips for UCAS fairs

By: Orla Hadjisophocleous

UCAS exhibitions can be the perfect starting point when researching Universities, courses and opportunities. They can also a great help when trying to decide which University you should put down as your firm or safety option! While the UCAS fair are really helpful they can also be extremely overwhelming. So here’s a list of my top tips for attending a UCAS fair:

  1. Familiarise yourself with the floor plan so you know where each University is and you only speak to those you want to.
  2. Before you attend, take a look at any talks or workshops that will be taking place at the fair. Some UCAS exhibitions have speakers on University subjects or advice sessions regarding personal statements, clearing, adjustment andstudent finance etc.
  3. Bring a pen and paper and make sure you note any questions you want to ask or anything  you found useful. Here are a few things you may have questions about:source
    • Your course – content, how flexible it is regarding elective modules and if you can choose ones beyond your school of study or discipline, number of students, nationalities, how diverse it is in terms of age, gender, religion, nationality
    • Assessment – when it takes place, how you are assessed (coursework, exams, presentations, practical work, group projects)
    • Industrial Experience opportunities or Study Abroad options
    • Teaching practices – how many contact hours, seminars, lectures
    • Diversity of the university and the area
    • Accommodation – prices, locations, characteristics of each area (for example at Manchester there are three main accommodation areas  and one is considered to be more of a party area than the other two), proximity to things like supermarkets
    • Facilities (including both buildings like football courts and facilities for student wellbeing such as counsellors, wellbeing rooms etc.)
    • Societies
    • Student Union – what societies do they have, opportunities it can provide you with, how to get involved, do they have student support services? Living costs
    • Transport links
    • Dropout rate of your course
    • Also, use your pen and paper to take notes; your memory can’t absorb all that information!
  4. Talk to as many people as possible from the Universities you are interested in and remember they’re there to help you! Many times, staff or students available are willing to provide their e-mail to you so you can follow up on any queries. This can be a great point of contact in terms of support but can also work in your favour as showing further interest in the University. They may also be able to put you in contact with someone directly related to your course (staff or student) if no one is readily available there.
  5. Pick up any leaflets with information and note down things said to you so you can take home and think through it again or get opinions from friends, family and teachers/academic advisors/counsellors
  6. Plan your time to make sure you speak to everyone you want to (keep in mind there is a waiting for each representative!)
  7. Explore alternative courses to the one you applied to; there may be something out there you’re not aware of that is more fitting! Even if you have sent your applications in, you may still be able to change courses if you contact your University.
  8. Don’t sign up for any e-mail lists or pick up prospectuses from Universities you’re not interested in; you will just become a spam magnet!

Hope these top tips help you at the fairs!. Wishing you best of luck with all UCAS fairs, application processes, potential interviews, decision making, and finally, the amazing University experience which will inevitably come!

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Tips for your MSc Dissertation – Do’s and Don’ts while you work

All postgrads sigh a breath of relief once exams are over. No more classes. No more setting up an alarm and you may sleep as much as you can until you wake up naturally. Although that might sound quite ideal, but the dissertation is not a piece of cake.

Planning Trips

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The idea of travelling around the UK, going back home, or visiting a friend somewhere in the EU might look very ideal at this time while there are no lectures or assignments to worry about. However, those on a close target of a 12-weeks submission should err on the side of caution. It is wise to let your supervisor know if you already have any such plans before he schedules a meeting with you on a date when you wouldn’t be able to see them. This puts an overall negative impact on the quality of work and your professionalism. Don’t even think that your supervisor won’t know if you could escape for a week without him noticing.  Your lack of progress will reflect your absence or poor time management.

Plan any travels on weekends and work like a full 9 to 5 job during the weekdays so you stay ahead of your proposed project plan. Inform your supervisor when you are away and if possible arrange a Skype call or a telephone meeting to show that your care about your work.

 

Choosing a Study Space

Trust me, your home is probably the worst place to work for your dissertation if your task is desk based. Laziness creeps in like the mouse that sneaks into your kitchen cabinets at night and you never know when it takes away the piece of cheese you had been keeping all locked and tight. Your time is as valuable as that cheese block and procrastinating is so likely for someone like me who gets easily distracted, especially when it is time to work.

The problem could be that you are on your own, with minimum support from your supervisor and you need to work efficiently. Find a study space in the library. The Learning Commons are quite free these days with the undergrads gone, so make the most of it and your time. An hour of focused study is better than spending 5 hours pretending you are studying.

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Keeping track of progress

It’s very simple to lose track of where your dissertation is going if you have not built a Gantt chart or other similar project plan. Starting out late, being stuck in the middle of the work could easily build up a bottleneck of work pressure at the end when you sit down to write your report. You must leave at least 3 weeks for the final write-up and spend time wisely on each stage of your plan, noting down which phase would take the most time and is most important for your thesis.

It would be best to keep a weekly meeting (or email) to update your supervisor so that he could guide you if you are slacking off. For engineering projects or lab work, this is often measurable in terms of the results obtained.

It could also be helpful to see how far other people have progressed in their projects, so you could set a benchmark if you are going too slow or have the right pace.

 

9 Top Tips for your PhD Internship

Many PhD students will get the chance to do an internship as part of their doctoral programme, in particular those on a Doctoral Training Partnership course. For the past 12 weeks I have left the biochemistry lab behind and have been on an internship in business learning about strategy design and implementation. I know right, fancy!

“I gained so much from my internship, not only new skills to put on my CV”

I was placed in the Co-operative Group head office, a hi-tech glass structure in Manchester City centre where I was based in the Human Resources department working on a new skills development scheme. The environment has been a little surreal because the corporate world is so vastly different to the academic world that us PhD students are used to. The whole experience has been amazing though and I have learnt so much; I would definitely recommend any PhD students out there thinking about doing an internship to just go for it! The Careers Service can help you to find and apply for internships if it’s something you fancy doing to gain more experience and boost your CV. To help navigate the corporate world and get the most out of your internship I have put together a list of my top tips…inside

Be friendly with everyone

As a PhD student we often spend a lot of time on our own. Use your internship as a chance to meet new people and network, network, network! Find out about how people got to be where they are now as a sure-fire way to get inspired!

Link In

At the end of each week connect with the people on Linked In that you have had conversations with that week as a great way to stay in touch when you’re back on campus. Also regularly update your profile with your new-found business skills. Stakeholder Engagement, Project Management, yes please!

Dress to Impress

You’re not on campus any more! If you’re internship is in business, chances are the dress code will be smart dress so ditch the hoodie and trainers. Throughout your internship you are bound to be getting introduced to lots of people, many of them may be high up in the company and you will want to make a good impression. Dressing smartly  is a great way to ensure that the first impression you give is that you are smart , reliable and mean business! My office ran a ‘hot desk’ policy so one day I could be sat next to my friends and the next the head of HR, so be prepared for all eventualities!

Office Culture Vulture

There’s bound to be lots of new workplace culture that you’re not used to as an academic – team breakfast meetings, coffee updates, free food Fridays (Food retail was definitely a great choice of placement!) – so make the most of all that is going on! Also find out pretty soon whether or not they do Casual Fridays…saves you turning up in a suit like I did when everyone else is in jeans!

Speak out in meetings

In academia we are often faced with a backlash when speaking out and we are well used to being ripped to pieces after a presentation. Business is not like this as people tend to be more subtle with their criticisms so don’t be afraid of telling your opinion on a subject! People will be interested in what you have to say as you will look at problems from an ‘outsider’ perspective which is always valuable. This is sure to boost your confidence in returning to your studies too!

Make a ‘Jargon-buster’ list

Each business and each department within each business has it’s own unique language – your first team meeting will likely baffle you! HR TOM WOW anyone? Nope, me neither…Make a note of any words/acronyms that you didn’t understand and get someone to explain them all afterwards if it’s not appropriate to interrupt the meeting.

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Once you start getting the hang of the jargon your team uses, start throwing it back at them in conversations. Not only does this show that you are adapting to become a valuable member of their team but it helps you to make your points with authority. Within 2 weeks as an intern I was SME or ‘Subject Matter Expert’ in my project and when people asked a question they expected an answer! Reply using the correct language and you will convince even yourself that you know what you’re talking about!

Prepare yourself for your first teleconference

Make sure you know what you want to say and what you want to get from the person you are meeting but bear in mind that you won’t be able to see the person’s face. This will feel really weird at first as it’s difficult to tell if people are still listening to you and you can’t read their reaction in their faces! Have faith and stop to check that people are still following you every now and again.

Get stuck in!

Don’t use the short length of your internship to put off doing tasks. It might not help you directly in your PhD but these experiences are bound to count for something further down the line! You might only be there for a few weeks but that’s all the more reason to get things done asap! Also never refuse tasks which you think are ‘beneath you’, there’s no such thing as a waste of time as you only get out of an experience what you put in.

I gained so much from my internship, not only new skills to put on my CV but valuable contacts outside of academia, a better understanding of where I want to be when my PhD comes to an end and most of all confidence! If I can survive the cut-throat corporate world I can survive academia right? 😉

A day in the life of a Biochemistry PhD student

When I tell people that I’m a scientist they often ask what I’m researching, to which I reply with the general aims of my PhD project (which I’m not going to bore you with here!). But then they go on to ask ‘So what do you actually do every day?’. This is more difficult to answer; actual tasks can vary so much from day to day and more often than not we use techniques that people may not have heard of to answer questions that may even seem to not be relevant to the aim of the project. It can get complicated!

When people imagine what a biochemist does everyday they no doubt picture a sparkling white laboratory filled with balding men in white coats mixing coloured, bubbling liquids together, generating lots of smoke and then shouting ‘Eureka!’. Firstly, a laboratory is NOT sparkly clean with so many chemicals lying around, we don’t all have crazy grey hair and it takes years and years of hard work and most importantly failure to get to that eureka moment. This is the thing that I think people find the hardest to understand; everything in science takes so much longer than you anticipate and the result of one experiment often throws up a hundred more questions than it answers!

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I thought I’d write this post to try to shed some light on what a typical day in the life of a scientist might look like. In fact I’m going to tell you what I did today, exactly as it happened, unedited. It was a frustrating day and far from glamorous, but then, that’s science! So if you would like to step into my comfy Nike lab trainers, allow me to talk you through a log of my day…

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