Working with the Use Less Group

As I approach the end of my PhD, I look back at the four years I spent working in the Use Less Group and I realise how lucky I have been to do research in such a fantastic environment. I have just completed my “PhD viva”, which is the oral examination in which students defend their thesis – a crucial step in obtaining the PhD degree. Because of the pandemic, the last eight months have been quite a challenging period, but thanks to the support of my supervisor Prof Julian Allwood and my colleagues and friends in the group, I have managed to finish writing up my thesis and to complete a journey that started back in October 2016.

I joined the group after graduating with an MEng in Materials Science & Engineering at Imperial College London. I had a strong passion for environmental sustainability and I really wanted to work on practical solutions for climate change mitigation. I had come across Prof Allwood’s writings in the Nature journal, and I started reading his book Sustainable Materials – With Both Eyes Open. His approach to the problem struck me as completely different to all other groups and professors I had researched: no blind faith in renewable energy and electrification, he proposed to find out what actually makes a difference in climate change mitigation and to address the issue with technologies that can be deployed rapidly at scale. So I emailed him directly to ask if he had any funding for me to do a PhD in his group, attaching my CV and a cover letter. To my surprise (I had imagined him as a very busy professor who received 600 emails a day – and indeed he is exactly that) he replied after only a few hours asking for a telephone interview. In the following weeks, together we applied for funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and we obtained a studentship to cover my fees and my stipend. I was going to do a PhD in Cambridge!

When I joined, I soon realised that the best thing about the Use Less Group is how multidisciplinary it is. Rather than saying: “I have some skills in engineering. What problems can I solve?”, it says: “I have a big problem (climate change). What skills do I need to solve it?”. Because of this problem-focused approach, although it is based in the Department of Engineering, the Use Less Group has hosted not only engineers, but also political scientists, sociologists, geographers and economists. Climate change is a big problem at the intersection of technology, society and policy, so it requires this multidisciplinary approach. To keep the whole group together, during my time in the group we have held weekly “Use Less Seminars”, in which a member presented their research to the rest of the group and received feedback from everyone else. These seminars have been a source of great inspiration, because they have provided me with insights on how my own research fit in the more general context of the problem.

The title of of my thesis was Craftsmanship and automation in flexible metal spinning. Although multidisciplinary, the core of the research performed in the group remains focused on developing innovative manufacturing techniques which can deliver savings in materials and energy. In particular, we focus on metal forming techniques, in which blocks or sheets of metal are shaped to achieve the required geometry and material properties. We currently have a lab with 4 machines that have been designed and built in-house. I worked on flexible metal spinning, a fascinating process that is still performed manually today by experienced artisans.  My goal was to improve the automatic control of the process to reduce the time and money required to make a part, thus making it more competitive. I really enjoyed doing research on this process, for three main reasons: I had a chance to apply my engineering skills by programming and analysing data; I learnt how to apply the scientific method by proposing hypotheses and designing the experiments to test it; finally, I had a chance to work with people, because one of my projects involved doing experiments with spinning artisans, who taught many things about the intricacies of this technique.

Doing a PhD is a challenging and amazing journey, in which you learn to be an independent researcher. The Use Less Group has been a great place to go through that process. Prof Allwood is an expert leader and mentor, who gives direction when needed but is also open to the student’s own initiative. There are postdoctoral researchers who have more time to help in the day-to-day tasks. And you always feel part of an enterprise to make the world a better place, even if a very small piece of the world. Having come to the end of this journey, I now feel I am equipped with a greater awareness of what I have to offer to address the issues I care about. Over the next year, I plan to work as a freelance writer in science and technology, because I think that the issue of climate change needs better communicators. Although I don’t plan to pursue an academic career, the self-leadership and project management skills I have developed in the past four years will be of invaluable help in my next endeavours. And I have no doubt that I have to thank the Use Less Group for that!