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Ernestine Hui (PhD Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, Graphene Technology) on magic, sci-fi, and her futuristic PhD

When my dad was travelling he bought me a book called “Physics of the impossible” by Michio Kaku. It got me really interested in the magical world of nanotechnology (or rather the things nanotechnology could do – such as invisibility cloaks, time travel, and perpetual motion machines). Couple that with sci-fi shows such as ‘Full Metal Alchemist’ and my 14-year-old mind was blown away and wanted to do real life alchemy!

Fast forward, this led to me doing my undergraduate MEng in Materials Science and Engineering at The University of Manchester. I studied materials from the theoretical level, to the atomic level, to the bulk scale. The course was really interesting, and I learnt a variety of topics from the design of materials, to the use of materials for sustainable energy applications, to applications in biotechnology. It also exposed me to my current PhD topic now, as it was where the Nobel Prize was awarded for the ground-breaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material, graphene.

However, it wasn’t until my master’s dissertation – which was on the synthesis of broad-spectrum antivirals for viruses (such as the Herpes SimplexVirus), where the idea of doing a PhD was cemented. It was such a fun project, and I loved the mesh between biology and materials science – in conjunction, my supervisor (Dr Samuel Jones) was really encouraging and helpful with answering all the questions I had about doing a PhD, which really gave me the push to apply!

I applied for the Graphene CDT as I knew I wanted to work with materials (and this new material was extremely exciting) and also because it offered a wide range of courses and projects I could do before deciding on a PhD topic. However, within my first month, I had already found my dream PhD project through a preliminary project rotation list where I did a mini project on the topic and extended it from my MRes straight into a PhD. It is really important to find a great supervisor for your PhD which is why it was a perfect fit for me as my MRes (Dr Antonio Lombardo) and PhD supervisors (Dr Gabriele Kaminski Schierle) are amazing!

My PhD is on: “Graphene brain-on-a-chip platform for the study of neurodegeneration” where I combine materials science, electrical engineering, and biology to investigate the causes and progression of diseases like Alzheimer’s Disease. I work between the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology and the Cambridge Graphene Centre. This interdisciplinary field is very hands-on and requires me to go into the labs to physically do experiments, which is the part that I personally love about science, and also – it sounds very futuristic, which my 14-year-old self would’ve loved!

My parents immigrated to the UK back in the 1980’s from Singapore and Hong Kong and have sacrificed a lot for me to get an education, and for me to continue to get an education. I went to a state school in London where the majority of students did not go down the higher education route, but my parents have always encouraged me and told me that I could do anything I wanted, and as my mum always says, “it doesn’t matter what you do, just do your best in it”. This was how I was supported to pursue so many different interests, which led to me being a first-generation PhD student! 

Initially, I was really set on going into academia – and I viewed my PhD as an “end goal”. However, as I progressed further into my PhD, I realised that it is not the end of my academic journey, but the start of my career. It’s really helped me develop skills I didn’t even realise I needed. Skills such as how to develop my own ideas and how to be confident in them, how to challenge ideas, regardless of what they are or who they come from, and how to simply speak up. The most valuable thing I’m learning is that no one else knows the answer to my PhD, which is why it’s my PhD, and I’m the one that has to find these answers. I had this misconception that I had to wait until I became a professor or even higher in order to have a voice that mattered – but the end goal of a PhD is to produce your individual contribution to the collective knowledge of this human species - and so my voice does in fact matter, as I’m the only one on this planet researching this very niche thing! The increments of my efforts everyday have amounted in me knowing more than I realise – which is definitely something I had to learn! 

My research has taught me that just because it’s always been done like that doesn’t mean it’s the status quo. Ideas can always be challenged, and I think that’s the beauty of being in this niche field between brand new materials science, physics, electrical engineering, and biology! Every day is very much an “expect the unexpected” kind of scenario. No one knows the answers yet, which is why I’m here!

There’s so much left to discover and explore – every time you think something makes sense theoretically, when you go into labs, you’re surprised. It’s kind of like an addictive game or page-turner, you can’t wait to see what’s next, and that is exactly what I love about my PhD.

One of the perks of doing a PhD is the flexibility in your schedule, which allows you to explore a wide variety of extracurricular activities. One of the societies I’m involved in is the Cambridge University Science and Policy Exchange – where I am currently the Head of Marketing and Communications. We link early career researchers with government policy makers and help PhD students like myself understand how our research and science fits into a broader policy context! I’m also currently working on a policy challenge in collaboration with the Cambridgeshire County Council, where I am doing research into the evidence surrounding the type of support, that would have the most impact, on ensuring that previously looked after young people have a successful transition, from being a supported young person into an independent adult. The recommendations will be coming out in March so look out for them!

There’s so much to get involved in and the cumulation of my PhD experience so far has definitely shaped where I want to go in the future – which seems to be the science policy route, although anything can happen in the next two years! As Michelle Obama quoted in her book “Becoming” – “Do we settle for the world as it is, or do we work for the world as it should be?”, which is definitely the takeaway lesson I’ve learnt from my PhD.

Coming in as a PhD student – I didn’t know much about the college system as I was busy applying for the actual PhD itself, and so the accommodation portion was not part of the thought process. So naively I remember clicking the “any” option when selecting colleges. However, that afterthought happened to be the best option, as I was placed in Lucy! 

It’s my third year living in Lucy and over the years I’ve seen this place grow and mature with many changes yet to come. Asides from the beautiful gardens and the extremely friendly and helpful porters, the strength and unique points about Lucy definitely lie in the ever-increasing diverse and vibrant community. The best part about the Lucy community is definitely the people I’ve met – with my housemates coming from all corners of the earth over the last few years. It’s been truly eye opening being able to be a part of their story and to hear how they’ve lived their lives. Nothing has been more precious or valuable than this exchange of experiences (it’s also been great trying all the different home cooking recipes!).

Personally, for me, especially in the world of engineering where women are in the minority – especially women of colour, it’s been extremely encouraging being in the presence of so many intellectual, strong, and talented women, in a safe and diverse community where ideas are shared and valued.

You can find me @Ernestine_Hui and @TheJournalCoop - a fellow PhD student and I started the #coopreads challenge, where you can get your daily feed of academic literature in less than 280 characters!