I am now in the final year of my four-year PhD studentship at Cranfield. It’s been a real journey for me – academically, personally, and geographically too. With the advice and support from my colleagues and supervisors, I have been able to diversify my experience and maximise the impact of my work, both in and out of the laboratory.
From travel grants to policy fellowships, public speaking on STEM careers (with audiences ranging from kids to MPs), sustainability and food security, to living abroad and working in ice cream design – my PhD has taken me to 10 countries, across three continents, and I have been able to build new collaborations, both home and abroad, with research groups in academia and industry.
Eight months ago in my penultimate year of study, I decided to take on a completely separate challenge, and in a completely different area of expertise. I started my own robotics business with my friends. Little did I know back then that in the months following our founding, we would be going on trade missions with the UK Consul for Science & Innovation in China, being appointed as a CommonwealthFirst Export Champion, and attending the National Business Awards – where I was announced as an InnovateUK Women in Innovation winner.
It all started with a problem. Over the last few years, many case studies have been published that demonstrate the value of drones to civil sectors – whether it was for spotting crop disease in its earliest stages, or delivering vital blood packs and vaccines to dangerous or remote areas.
However, time and time again these case studies kept on coming up against the same barriers to wide-scale deployment, which prevented the setup of drone tech in areas that could most benefit. It was here that we saw a huge opportunity, to both enhance drone-tech and make significant societal impact.
Our solution was to create infrastructure for drones that was easy to use and maintain, and able to perform for a variety of applications. This would give remote communities, with limited access to training or power, the ability to use emerging drone-tech. Farmers would be able to automate field-inspection without the need for a human operator. Monitoring activities are also very important to large infrastructure and offshore inspection. We will also be able to create logistical routes that can operate in difficult or dangerous locations.
Following our founding in June, we were successful in winning pre-seed funding from the Bettany Centre for Entrepreneurship in July, and later in the year I obtained the Women in Innovation prize. We also won a grant from ICUK and the Foreign Office Global Prosperity Fund to go on an Innovation Mission to China in November, and are going back to follow up with our connections next month. In March we have also been invited to present at CleanEquity in Monaco (a world-leading conference on emerging clean-tech) alongside other start-ups based at Cranfield University.
With nine months to go until my PhD submission date, I’ve now formally started to write up my thesis. Here comes the work-life balance bit:
At the moment, this is a project that my team works on in addition to our full-time study and work. This means working very late nights and weekends. We do this because we love it, and we truly believe in what we are doing. Even so, looking ahead on our route to the commercialisation of our technology – I need to be in a position to employ my team full-time to keep up our R&D momentum. This means more grant applications; more pitch preparation; more networking – all to secure more funding. With every attempt at this, regardless of the outcome, we learn and grow as a unit. Needless to say, I am grateful for the access to academic support and advice, as well as business mentorship that keep me on track with my studies, AND my start-up.
My advice for other PhD students is: seize every chance to grow, learn and diversify your studentship. It’s an opportunity like no other in your career – make the most of it!