Q&A with research fellow Dr Rebecca Boston

Materials World magazine
29 Oct 2018

Idha Valeur talks to Dr Rebecca Boston, research fellow, about her career and how she secured five years of funding for her research into controlling crystal growth in materials.

Can you tell me about your background and career to date?

I started off studying at the University of Bristol, UK, for a degree in physics, followed by a PhD with the Bristol Centre in functional nanomaterials. I moved to the university’s School of Chemistry to do my PhD, and so when I decided to do a postdoctoral I wanted to carry on researching something that covered areas of both physics and chemistry. My PhD was looking at controlling nanoscale crystal growth in oxide materials, and I decided to continue this work by expanding my techniques into new materials. I was very fortunate to find a postdoctoral position at the University of Sheffield, UK, which gave me the scope to test some of my early ideas – I realised quite quickly that my expertise was a new approach for the field, and that I had something potentially valuable to contribute. These ideas lead me to apply for fellowships to give me independence in my research and ideas, and enable me to build my own research group.

My team and I now work on controlling crystal growth in all sorts of materials, with the goal of reducing how much energy is used to make them, and to create materials that work more effectively than those we currently use. My work at the moment is all about oxide materials, which are found everywhere in modern life. The problem is they take a lot of energy to make and often contain toxic or rare materials, which make them expensive or difficult to recycle. My goal at the moment is to use natural products to make materials at low temperatures, and control the size and shape of the crystals as they grow. Shape and size can be used to control how the materials work, rather than just composition, and hopefully this means we will need to use less energy, and will be less reliant on elements for which supplies are running out.        

Why did you choose to study physics?

I enjoyed physics at school and I wanted to carry on learning about how the universe works. Physics underpins a lot of general scientific concepts so I’ve found it really useful to have the fundamental understanding of materials, which physics has given me, and it’s great to now be able to use that to solve real-world problems.

What does your day-to-day work involve?

Every day has something different – I do a lot of work in the lab, designing and running experiments, for myself or with the students I supervise. I also spend a lot of time writing, either grant applications or articles for journals. Communicating ideas is absolutely central to my everyday work, so it’s good to be able to do a little every day.

What has been your biggest career highlight?

Gaining independence has been the biggest step for me so far – being able to choose my own direction and follow my own ideas to wherever they lead is incredibly rewarding.

In 2016 you were awarded five years of funding from the Royal Academy of Engineering. Can you tell me about that?

Writing the application was a big time commitment, but my boss of the time was very understanding and gave me the space to write something I was very proud of. There were two rounds of written submissions with sift panels and external reviews, and then I was invited for an interview. Although nerve-wracking, this was a great opportunity to talk to a captive audience about what I wanted to do, and a couple of weeks later I was very happy to find out that I had been successful. The fellowship enables me to set my own research agenda and test out my own ideas, and means that I can devote almost all of my time to research. I’m funded by the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Lloyd’s Register Foundation. I’ve been very fortunate to be given the opportunity to work with two highly respected organisations.   

How do you think Brexit will impact access to funding in the UK, if at all?

It’s really difficult to say at the moment. Science is global so it is vital that we are able to continue to work together, and this is aided, in no small part, by international grants. It’s a worrying time, but the general attitude seems to be to carry on as normal, at least for now. 

What’s your main advice to others about securing funding?

Start early, apply for everything you can, and try not to take rejection to heart. It’s really hard to see something you’ve put so much into not work out, but don’t give up, use any feedback – if you get some – and make the next one even better. Most importantly, you need to be passionate about your ideas – if you don’t believe in what you’re trying to do, the panel definitely won’t, but genuine passion is infectious and one of the best ways to communicate convincingly.

Can you explain your collaboration with the EPSRC?

I am currently a member of the EPSRC’s Early Career Manufacturing Forum, we’re a network of researchers from universities across the country, all working in manufacturing fields. We meet a few times a year to discuss the direction of future manufacturing in the UK, and how the EPSRC can best support that from an early career researcher point of view. It’s really exciting to be a part of, and I’ve met new collaborators and friends through the network. Having a direct line to the EPSRC is also really helpful when it comes to preparing grants – sometimes just knowing the right person to talk to is the most important thing.

What’s your opinion on the current state of funding for STEM projects?

I think funding is always an issue. It would always be nice to have more resources but we have to be realistic – funding is finite and there are a lot of worthy recipients and projects. I think, however, there is definitely a drive towards industry-ready and technology-transfer projects, rather than true blue sky research, and while this is important, it is not a good idea to do this to the exclusion of everything else. Yes, we need to fund the transfer of ideas into commercial production, but if we can’t get funding for fundamental research, then that flow of ideas will dry up. The problem is, these blue sky projects often take years or even decades to come to fruition, and that isn’t fast enough for some of the funding models we currently have.

What are your plans for the rest of your research period?

Lots of grant writing and work in the lab – I’ve got so many ideas I want to try out, and it would be great to see some of these making an impact in the wider world. That’s going to take time, but that’s what the fellowship has given me – the space to explore and to really push things forward.

What are your future plans for when the five years are over?

I enjoy working at the university so I hope to continue this, and keep on building my research team. Ultimately, I would like to become a professor. It’s going to take a lot of hard work and dedication but I hope that I will be able to discover something new along the way.