Profile - Jenni Tilley MEng DPhil, Lindemann Scholar
2012–present Lindemann Scholar, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA
2012 Post-doctoral Research Assistant, Botnar Research Centre, University of Oxford
2011 3rd place, IOM3 Young Person’s World Lecture Competition, Brazil
2008–2012 STEM Ambassador, STEMNET DPhil Materials Science (Biomaterials), University of Oxford MEng Materials Science, University of Oxford, including final year project at the Department of Physics, University of Sydney, Australia
What made you choose to study materials science and metallurgy?
I became interested in MS&M while researching the failure of the Team Philips catamaran for my A-Level Physics coursework – I was fascinated by the materials they’d used and why the yacht had broken up so spectacularly. However, I convinced myself that MS&S would be too narrow a topic to read at university, so decided to read Chemical Engineering instead. Once I got to university it turned out I was rubbish at maths and the only part of the engineering course I actually enjoyed was the Materials Properties module. At the end of my first year, my university tutors allowed me to switch to the MS&S degree course and I haven’t looked back since.
Can you tell me a bit more about your Masters and DPhil?
When I was at school, I really didn’t enjoy biology at all – I was more into the physical sciences. However, during my third year at university I took a Biomaterials module and really enjoyed seeing biological problems and environments from a physical sciences point of view. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that in my final year I went to do my Masters research at the University of Sydney, where I joined the Applied and Plasma Physics research group in trying to stick proteins to plastics using plasma physics. Following on from that, I returned to the University of Oxford to do a DPhil based in the Biomaterials group in the Department of Materials. I actually started out doing some tissue engineering research, but when the opportunity came up to link up with a surgeon and get involved with an actual real-life issue (tearing and degradation of the tendons in the shoulder – an issue that is estimated to affect more than 50% of people over the age of 60), I jumped at the chance. I really love the idea of applying my materials science knowledge to real-life biomedical problems.
What does your current role involve?
I’m currently a visiting fellow at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA, funded by a year-long Lindemann Fellowship from the English Speaking Union. This is my first post-doc, and it’s great because having my own funding gives me the freedom to do my own research. It’s quite a challenge though, as I’ve changed fields in quite a big way – I still research biomaterials, but I’m now developing X-ray contrast agents for imaging soft tissue damage, which involves the position, the current focus is on establishing experimental detail, but I’m hoping to start supervising students and taking on more responsibility within the research group over the course of the year.
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement to date?
That has to be a toss-up between finishing my undergraduate degree and completing my DPhil, both of which gave me enormous satisfaction. I was the first person in my family to go to university so I hope I’ve made my family proud, too.
What do you see yourself doing next?
As I’m only 28, there’s still a lot I’d like to achieve. In terms of what I see myself doing next, I’m currently trying to find funding to remain here at the University of Notre Dame for another year as there’s only so much research you can do in 12 months. After that, I’m not sure, but whatever I do it will have to involve some form of teaching and communicating science as that’s my big passion.
Are you concerned about the declining number of students overall choosing materials science?
Yes – materials science is vital to our economy and our society. Without it, there’d be no one who could speak the language of both the scientists and the engineers and help them communicate with each other. I’m not surprised, though – many science teachers are unsure of what materials science actually is, so how are potential students supposed to find out about it? I think work such as the outreach work done by Diane Aston and IOM3’s Outreach and Education team is vital in addressing this, but I also think there’s a lot more than could be done by industry and academia to spread the materials word. What we really need is for someone to give materials science the Brian Cox effect.