Q&A with Rhys Archer, winner of I’m an Engineer get me out of here

Materials World magazine
4 Jan 2017

From investigating carbon composites to winning I'm an Engineer, Get me out of here, Rhys Archer discusses her winding path into materials science.

Tell us about your background.

My educational background is convoluted, I didn't take a direct route into materials science. Throughout school I was always really interested in textiles – looking at how fabrics are made and their properties, and studied this alongside physics and mathematics at A-level. The career tutors didn't fully understand niche areas such as textile science, so I ended up applying for a foundation course in physics at the University of Manchester, UK. It was very much discussion based with a mixture of group learning, lectures and lab work. It was during this year that I found out about the materials science department at the university. I didn't even know materials science existed. I then changed courses to textile science and technology, looking at the supply chain across the world, how different materials are made and the mechanics and chemistry of materials. We started learning about carbon composites and Kevlar for industrial applications. It was amazing to me how we were using these traditional textiles techniques, but applying them to modern materials for aerospace and automotive industries. I then went on to enrol on a PhD at the University of Manchester, UK, where I am currently investigating carbon fibre composites.

Can you tell me about your PhD research?

I am looking into the impact resistance of carbon fibre composites that have a high specification non-woven material interleaved throughout the structure to improve their strength. I now want to identify whether there is a relationship between the non-woven materials and the impact resistance of a panel. I spend my time making carbon fibre composite panels and then breaking them through impact and tensile loading. I then use analysis and microscopy techniques to monitor these and try and understand the relationship. I am currently working with Technical Fibres Limited (TFP) in Cumbria, UK. They supply the materials and it is my job to understand the science behind them. I go along to see them every few months and I'm lucky that I am able to see my work within the industry. I hope with some more work I will be able to see this develop. I think my research could be a new and exciting perspective on composite science, looking at the principles of non-woven science but applying them to composites.

Have you thought about what you plan to do in the future?

At the moment I just plan on studying and researching for my PhD. I think materials science is such a fascinating area to be in. I recently went along to a wonder materials exhibition in Manchester, spurred on by graphene and new materials and it was so exciting to see. At this time, I don't know whether I want to stay in academia to further my research or look for work in industry. 

What advice would you give to someone thinking of studying a science subject?

Always carry on reading. With any materials science courses, there is a lot of the engineering properties, testing and analysis – these fundamentals you have to know, but that doesn't define how exciting the area is at the minute. Read journals and news articles and attend workshops and conferences to think about what you are learning about on a day-to-day basis, how the fundamentals of engineering and of materials science are being used and applied to bring about new and exciting developments. Stay curious and feed your interest in the area. You learn so many new skills, such as problem solving – knowing what questions to ask and finding a solution that are not only useful in science but all industries. Try and also get involved with real life projects to keep pushing your skills further, so that when you come out of university, you are more employable and have an extensive list of skills to offer to a company.

How can students thinking of doing a PhD best prepare for their proposals?

You need to identify the area you are most interested in, think about what you have studied and what you most enjoyed about it, but also consider what you want in terms of a career. Once you have decided, start to read the literature to get a general background and investigate whether there are any unanswered or unexplored areas – this is the basis for how new research starts. Also, talk to professors in the specific area you are interested in, as they know better than anyone else what research is out there. 

It is also good to look into the EPSRC, as every year they update their priorities for research – it is a good tool for helping to determine what research they want to fund. It is worthwhile to tailor your proposal to their priorities from a funding point of view, but also you then know your research is relevant. You will have a better chance of funding and also your proposal is of interest to the public and the industry. If you can go along to networking events, then go. It is great to speak to others in the industry and make contact with those who are researching similar areas. It is worth remembering that it isn't all about academia – gaining invaluable industry experience and understanding the value of your work for industry will play a big part in future prospects.

What did your contribution to the Outreach programme involve?

I have been involved in outreach projects from my first year at university through to my PhD. I currently work with schools as a widening participation fellow alongside maths and science tutoring. I think science communication is one of the biggest areas we need to consider as scientists. Giving access to the public about our findings and information and using that to inspire the new generation of scientists is going to be crucial. It is about targeting schools to raise aspirations of young people – some of the most inquisitive and curious people aren't necessarily going to be those who are getting the top grades. I often go to schools to talk about my own path into academia, as my pathway to science wasn't defined by the grade I got. I am currently setting up a campaign called women of science. There have been references made that science is a man's job and this can be extremely off-putting for young girls. It is a subject open to everyone – and there needs to be more role models out there for young female students.

You won 'I'm a engineer, get me out of here!' what did that involve?

Over a period of two weeks, you participate in live web chats with students, who ask a series of questions about your subject. The school children vote for their favourite scientist. Somehow, I was voted the favourite scientist after the full two weeks. It was a massive surprise to win. On the back of that I was awarded some funding to put towards a science communication outreach project – this was when I decided on the women of science campaign. I want to break the stigma and show young girls that science can take you to all sorts of places. It is a really exciting field to be in.

If you would like to be featured in the PD section, contact materials.world@iom3.org

To find out more about the Women of Science campaign, visit www.womenofsci.com