9. It’s happening for a reason

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Hello! It’s been a little while since I’ve written anything on my blog here. I had a few very busy months finishing uni, and I’ve been enjoying some very quiet months in the aftermath of finishing my degree. There has been plenty of opportunity for me to write something but today I have felt really ready to. I am glad I waited until now, because it feels so good to write at a time that it’s the only thing I want to do.

Having been so long since I’ve written anything, there have been lots of things to write about. My plans for after uni have changed dramatically… I am no longer planning to take a year out to have a rest while working in a shift-work job. I am having a summer of rest before starting a fully sponsored PhD in October! I’m going to talk a little bit about how this came about because it came to me in a way that you could only really describe as ‘fate’, and it’s something I’d love to be able to read back on later in my life.

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The day I finished my degree!

As part of an engineering undergrad degree at Loughborough, you undertake a ‘final year project’. Essentially this is an engineering student’s ‘dissertation’. The wonderful thing about engineering is that the final year project can entail almost anything, from design or improvement of a product to research into a new material or manufacturing process. The projects people on my course undertook ranged across all sorts of things, from creating virtual reality game where you float around in space looking down at the solar system, to designing prosthetic limbs that grow with child patients. I know, how cool!

I came back from my year at Unilever with some real fire in my belly. I had developed a great knowledge of plastics used in packaging and the injection moulding industry. Not only did I loved how hot chains of plastics swam into the cool moulds, but I also enjoyed learning about the companies we worked with; many of them family businesses passed down generation after generation. I met a lot of eccentric people… one company owner had a tractor collection, and another had built a golf course on the factory site! With the things I’d experienced at Unilever I decided to look for a project that incorporated a bit of material science with a manufacturing process.

After three days of poring over project descriptions and informal chats with potential supervisors I ended up with my topic: ‘surface patterning of cellulose composites’.

In essence, the context of the project was as follows. When people damage the nerves in their peripheral nervous system (basically the nerves in your body which aren’t in your spine or brain), it’s often hard for these nerves to repair themselves.

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Think of one of these nerves as a long piece of string, running down one of your arms or legs… when the string is severed, it can repair itself if the two severed ends can sense each other and grow back together. If the gap between the severed ends is too big, they need to be guided back to each other with a little track. It was my task to work out how to create this little track on a material that could be popped into the body next to a damaged nerve. If the track was just right, then nerve ends would be able to find each other and reconnect. Job done!

I used a laser (a very narrow, powerful beam of light) to blast tracks onto a jelly-like material produced by bacteria, called cellulose. It’s quite similar to collagen so human bodies don’t mind it being about, so it’s the perfect platform for a tiny nerve track. I also had to oven-dry the cellulose which was an interesting experience. I felt like I was perfecting a recipe for baked bacterial cellulose.

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The lasering and baking of a weird, gooey (but incredibly useful and abundant) material kept this fire in my belly alight. It made me realise how much I like to learn and discover new things; it made me feel like a fast-thinking detective in a BBC police drama. A lot of the time when I felt really low and hopeless throughout my final year, my cellulose project brought me back to a place where I was excited to read about things, leave the house, interact with people, think. Things that being depressed really takes away from me, and things that make me not want to be here when I don’t feel like I can do.

The people I met during my project gave me so much to live for, too. The university staff in the laser and materials labs who I spent so many hours bouncing ideas off, laughing with and occasionally crying a few tears with. They always made me feel so welcome and gave me great inspiration to love the research I was doing.

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One day in April when I was blasting seaweed with one of the lasers (sounds cool, smelt fishy), I ended up in a conversation with the laser shed manager and one of the academics who I’d gotten to know. There was a vacant PhD available to start in October, but they hadn’t found the right candidate for it yet. They wondered if I might be interested in it.

It was going to involve lasers – materials science – 3D printing – patents – invention – investigation. To top it all off, it was going to be fully funded by an engineering company the uni has strong connections with. It really, really didn’t fit into my future plans (when would I take time off to fully recover, and earn some money, and go travelling? Would I ever get to move to London?!) but the more I thought about the project, the more I felt like I’d poured a little bit of lighter fluid into the fire in my belly. I couldn’t sleep at the thought of it!

It also turns out that PhDs seem to be a good mixture of work and studying. I’ll need to be productive and organised but I can work whenever suits me, to a certain extent. I’ve got my own office to work in but I’ve got the option to work at home if things get a little bit too much. Plus, I’ve got my lovely laser family! I’m so happy I’ve got four more years with them. Loughborough is a safe and happy place for me too – four more years at such a great university feels so right to me. I think it’s really going to help me get back to a place where my mind’s a bit happier than it has been.

So that’s it. In a week and a half I’ll be moving back to Loughborough to begin my postgraduate studies. I’m scared and apprehensive but also so ready to dive straight in after a summer of rest. Onwards and upwards to the next step in the great adventure of life.

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