In 2014 I applied to present in the Material’s Research Society (MRS) annual conference, which is held annual in April in in San Francisco. A PhD is a strange gig: your grant contains money earmarked for travel, but you have no control of how your grant is spent- and you don’t get to see any bank statements. So I also applied for a travel grant from the Armourers and Brasiers’ Trust. I was accepted for to attend the conference, and I got a hefty travel grant (in the form of a hand written cheque), but didn’t go to San Francisco because there was ‘too much on in the lab’. Instead I applied for another conference, B-MRS, which sounds like a downgrade, but just stands for Brazil. And I got another grant from the Imperial College Travel Fund. So in September 2015 I went to Brazil and attended the best conference I’ve ever presented at- an International Symposium on Solar Cell Stability.
The Guild of St George and the Armourers was founded in 1322, teamed with the brass and copper pros the Brasiers in 1708 to deck the halls with macho armour. They no longer manufacture armour; but instead empower science through awards and grants. The money sponsors material scientists working in schools, apprentices, undergraduates, postgrads and the wider research community. Last year they gave almost £225,000 away… with the bulk going to researchers at Imperial College. For the past two-years they’ve offered a £ 25 k grant for entrepreneurship, which has funded 6 successful start-ups. Their annual alumni networking evening is quite the event: connecting material scientists of old with their modern counterparts. It’s hosted in the Armourers Hall, which was built in 1839, on a site that the Guild have owned since 1346. The hall has survived the Great Fire of London and the Blitz- so I’m pretty sure it can handle a hundred or so rowdy scientists. Over the course of the evening we heard 10 3-minute ‘elevator pitches’ from material science scholars- be they year-13 or professor level.
We hear from Jenny Crump who works as a project leader in the Welding Institute, Cambridge. Jenny loves metals and Jenny loves defects. In my eyes: a defect is not good news- it can cause all kinds of chaos in a solar cell. In the eyes of most young people, a joint isn’t a massive piece of metal that can hold the weight of 6 double decker London buses. Jenny’s on a mission to characterise different types of defects using micro-Computed tomography (a bit like the CT scans you might have in hospital) and eliminate them from the manufacturing stage. I really liked Jenny. She says words that I’m familiar with like ‘morphology’ and ‘stress’, but she has a whole new world for them.
Next up there is a material scientist from Imperial: Chris Ablitt from the Department of Materials. He’s a computational chemist who is part of the Theory and Simulation of Materials CDT. He tries to convince the audience that simulations aren’t trying to replace experiments; they’re trying to explain them.
There is some amazing science on offer from Professor Eleanor Stride, who works on targeted drug delivery at the University of Oxford. Professor Stride is a sensational speaker. In the past twenty years the pharmacological industry has doubled in cost. Is it that the ‘drugs don’t work’? No, actually- they do, but they’re not getting to the right places. When we’re injected with medicine or take tablets < 1 % of the drugs make it to the part of the body that needs it. Professor Stride is encapsulating drugs in polyethylene glycol, which allow them to move through the immune system unnoticed, and come alive where they’re needed. By cleverly disguising antibiotics and guiding them through our bodies (often with the aid of nano-magnets), we should be able to avoid antibiotic resistance.
In the spirit of empowering young researchers, the next speaker is 17-year old Aysha Wilson from Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys. Aysha takes to the stage like an absolute expert- talking us through iridescence, birefringence, Bragg’s Law- and scanning electron microscope images of beetles. Aysha’s spent her sixth form using St. Paul’s Boys SEM system (you heard it right, St. Paul’s Boys have their own scanning electron microscope!) to topographically map the surface of her beetles. On the side she has been been modeling the iridescence from their multi-layer reflective surfaces. Aysha is part of the Institute of Research in Schools, which has supported secondary students to work with NASA, track cosmic rays and the Royal Astronomical Society. The Institute’s founder and champion, Professor Becky Parker (MBE) has more medals and letters to her name than I’ll try to get right- and sends a staggering 2% of the national cohort of female physicists at University come from her school (Langton Boys).
Have you ever wondered what’s in your sun cream? Like most of my life, it turns out to be a trade off between organic and inorganic materials (be they semiconductors or vegetables). The organic materials are great at absorbing high-energy light and are transparent on the skin, but they can breakdown in sunlight (as can their semiconducting solar counterparts) and act as an irritant. Dr. Kate Thornton from Croda and the Institute of Materials tells us about how you can use the size of the individual nanoparticles in sun cream to determine the level of protection sun creams offer.
The next speaker, Jonathan Phillips, has some great stats on 3D printing. His talk is about using additive printing (which is a technical term for 3D) to create ceramics, precious metals and parts for spaceships. Dr. Phillips says that 95 % of hearing aids are currently 3D printed, which is just about the best 3D printing fact I’ve HEARD in a long time (get it?).
I’ve had a double dose of perovskites today, after hearing about perovskite LED’s this morning no we’re on to superconductive perovskite oxides to create tiny transistors for smart computer chips. Josée Kleibeuker tries to extend the exciting interfacial science that occurs in thin film devices is into bulk of the devices, then she’s using tiny pens to write conductive channels and create conductive pathways. She’s Pb-ing us on. Get it? (perovskites are infamous for their poisonous high lead content). Josh Weston from Rolls Royce describes the complex design of jet engines. The materials Josh uses have to withstand super high temperatures and pressures, they have to be reliable, cost-effective and light. Josh was part of the team at Rolls-Royce who built a jet engine from lego. David Williams from the University of Surrey introduces us to a cold atmospheric plasma treatment, which he uses to coat stainless steel and protects it from external stresses. David’s work is based on adhesive bonding, which since its inception 200,000 years ago hasn’t developed much beyond dead plants and animals. Finally- and a fitting end in the surroundings- Adam Healey from the University of Surrey and Lucideon Engineering Consultants describes the design of biomimetic body armour.
We break out through a secret trap-door at the back of the Armouer’s Hall to an incredible spread of canapés: it’s almost like an army of diligent material science house elves has been working silently whilst we ‘science’. I’d say 30 % of the table is covered by fine cheese and celery. I get chatting to Alysha and we schedule some laser-beetle action at the upcoming Institute of Research in Schools launch: watch this space. Armourers and Brasiers- thanks for the £££, thanks for the fancy food and thanks for the opportunities to meet such an exciting group of people!