Hannah Sullivan is a final-year PhD student at the CSCT whose enthusiasm for chemistry rekindled unexpectedly — just as she was ready to forget about the field forever.
Passionate about sports and science in equal measure, whenever she isn’t in the lab Hannah can be found kayaking the South-Western waters or running around a hockey field. She also owns a shocking amount of scarves.
What brought you to the CSCT?
My MChem research project at the University of Bath was on making molecules (containing zinc and sulphur) which could be used to make thin films of materials for solar cells. I ended up doing a lot of research into solar cells and other sustainable energy materials, which gave me a strong interest in sustainable technologies. As I was in Bath already, I knew about the CSCT and the research that was done there. I knew I liked the research culture in Bath, so joining the CSCT meant that I could focus on the type of research I was interested in whilst being in an environment that I already enjoyed.
I was very lucky as I didn’t have to look far to find a PhD!
Can you tell us more about your work?
Of course! I create transparent, thin film materials that could make LEDs and other low-powered transparent devices more efficient. In reality, this means much of my day-to-day involves designing molecules for use in a synthetic process called Atomic Layer Deposition (ALD) that will produce materials with a number of desired properties. ALD is a method that allows me to deposit material in single atom thick layers onto a surface. The materials I create, called metal oxides, can be made in a very precise manner through this process: alternating between metal atom and oxygen atom layers.
To create the metal layers, I chuck a gas made of the metal-carrying molecules I have designed into a chamber. Some of the molecules 'stick' to a surface in the chamber, in a way that attaches the metal they carry to it. I then clear out the chamber creating a vacuum, so anything that's not attached to the surface is removed.
After this, I create an oxygen layer by adding water. Some of the water molecules (H2O) will interact with the metal layer and will leave their oxygen behind, creating the next layer I need for my material. As before, I empty the chamber using a vacuum to remove anything that's not attached to the surface.
By repeating this process again and again, I am able to create the thin films I want. If this works, I can start improving the process and collaborating with my industrial partner to see if the film I've made is good enough for an industrial environment.
Why did you choose to work on materials chemistry?
To start with, I like making things, and I really like air-sensitive chemistry — which is chemistry that has to be done in an unreactive atmosphere, otherwise it reacts with things in the air making other compounds that we don’t want.
My work has a lot of industrial application, so I get to see how the small samples I create in the lab are translated to a commercial environment, which is rewarding because I get to see the impact of what I do right away. Besides this, it also lets me play around with chemicals to make new molecules – what’s not to like!
I’ve also found that within the materials deposition community, there are very few people doing what I do, which is researching new molecules that can make specifically targeted materials. I think this really needs to be addressed as it is fundamental for the next stage of development in the industry.
What are the applications of the new materials you create?
Currently, there is an impending need to create flexible, transparent, power-efficient films that can be used in the electronics industry. The semiconductor industry is excelling at reducing the size of our electronics; however, the industry is limited by the materials available to it. The main barrier is that silicon, the traditional material used for electronic chips, is not the best choice as it’s not transparent, flexible, or cost-efficient on such a small scale. Therefore, the industry needs to find alternatives!
By developing transparent flexible electronic devices, we could begin to introduce microelectronics into food packaging, either to monitor the level of bacteria present or to remind you that the chicken you bought is still sitting in the fridge waiting to be used. It could also help the industry develop discrete microelectronics for monitoring certain health conditions, for example using skin sensors. We could even start to develop flexible solar cells that you could pack away in your bag and use later to help you charge your portable devices!
At the moment, though the industry has identified a number of these types of material, their manufacture is quite challenging. That’s why I am trying to research new molecules that will hopefully make it much easier to produce transparent, power-efficient materials that meet the requirement of the electronics industry, by using a method that can be easily transferred to a commercial environment.
What challenges have you encountered as a PhD student?
The physical aspects of a PhD are typically simple: you have to learn new skills, instruments play up on you and don't work for 6 months (I speak from experience here!), you realise you’ve run out of chemicals and forgot to order more… I could go on! Normally these can be easily solved. You learn the technique, you clean or repair the instrument, you learn how to use your waiting times in the lab to become more organised, etc.
On the other hand, the mental challenges are a lot harder - for everyone! Finding the motivation to keep trying new things despite bad results; constantly adapting to the new directions your project can take; remembering all those different pathways and deciding which ones to charge down headfirst and which ones to drop…
The only way to get through it is to seek a support network that allows you to take a step back and realise why you do what you do. I have an incredible research group and an amazing boyfriend, and they both support and bully me in just the right amounts to keep me on track.
Also - PhD students out there: make sure you communicate with your supervisor! By the end of my second year, I was down a research rabbit warren with no idea where I was going. After three months of battering at a door that just wasn't opening, I eventually told my supervisor. We had a brief chat and found a new direction for my research – a direction I would never have found by myself.
On a lighter note, another challenge I found was making sure I had enough glassware! As a team, we share everything in the lab so, in the final few months of my PhD, I solved this issue by claiming as many bits of glassware first thing in the morning, then lamenting the fact I had such little time left whenever anyone complained. It worked more often than not!
You are part of the CSCT Web Committee. How has this experience been for you?
The Web Committee has helped me discover my love for content creation and idea formulating, so now I know I want a job where I can be generating ideas all the time.
It has given me an amazing understanding of the importance of social media in changing perspectives and promoting ideas. It's also made me realise that I love being part of a creative group of people who enjoy bouncing ideas off each other and who are open to trying new things.
I also get a kick out of realising how many people are actually interested in reading about science. It’s really good to know that outside of the scientific bubble we live in, people care about what we do!
You compete in canoe polo and hockey events. How often do you train and where do you find the time?
I play canoe polo twice a week, boulder once a week with a couple of other chemists, and play hockey once a week. I was a high-level swimmer from age 13-18, so I am used to training regularly alongside schoolwork. I need regular exercise to keep me happy, and it doesn’t take up that much of my time — I get bored in the evenings if I’m not up to something!
Still, if I’m honest I don’t really have the time to do everything I want to do. At the start of this year, I tried to train seriously for canoe polo, hoping to push for the GB squad, but I found that it would have required too much time in my final year. I had to give up on that and drop back to just twice a week. It was a shame, but I know that right now my priority is my PhD, so I don’t regret that choice.
Does your passion for sports enhance your academic career, or does it interfere with it?
Although concessions need to be made, I think it’s a definite plus! I’ve seen such a transfer of skills from doing sports to my academic life!
- Bouldering and problem solving: I’ve learnt how to approach problems from different directions, and how to ask others for help (everyone has a different approach and it can be useful to spot what you haven’t yet seen!)
- Hockey, resilience and networking: I started hockey as a complete beginner this year. It was hard but it helped me learn to accept failures when trying new things. It also gave me the opportunity to learn how to interact with new people when you are very much out of your depth — good practice for conference networking!
- Canoe Polo, teamwork and mentoring: Canoe Polo has been a huge part of my university journey as I only started when I first came to Bath. Lots of hard work has culminated in what I think is the proudest moment of my uni life: coming 5th in the open league at BUCS 2019 — the highest the open team has managed in about eight years! I have also been coaching the ladies team that is coming through over the past few years.
Finding the time for training is hard, but the results make it worthwhile, and, on a cheesy level, it reminds me that the same is true of a PhD. Your results match the effort and the time you put into them.
The best tip you have received as a PhD student?
“Huh, weird! Have you tried this?”
It might not be a tip, but it’s the comment that I think helps most! Not everything goes to plan, and sometimes no one else knows why the hell a reaction or process hasn’t worked, but there’s always something you could try instead. Basically, all is not lost! Just try again…but slightly differently.
Who inspires you?
Everyone around me. Friends, family, my research group. My parents give me my regular healthy dose of “stop whining — buck-up and get on with it”, my boyfriend continually helps to mentor me in the art of organisation and due diligence, and my supervisor inspires me to be as creative and inventive in the lab as I want.
I’m inspired by people who achieve their goals, make their ambitions a reality, and do whatever is needed no matter what chaos is happening around them.
One thing that took you by surprise during your PhD?
I was not expecting my research group to feel like a second family. And I didn’t expect I would be so interested in other research areas simply because I know someone who works in them either! I think that’s one of the great things about the CSCT cohorts — I’ve been able to learn about so many research areas, both in and out of Chemistry, just because that’s what people in my cohort are working on.
During ‘moments of darkness’, what made you smile?
Knowing that even when I didn’t believe in myself, others did. Sometimes it’s hard to deal with this pressure, but it also helps to take a step back and realise that if someone believes in you, it may be because they have more perspective to see things in you that you can’t see yourself.
When that one doesn’t work, giving myself an aim outside of work (e.g., perfecting a hockey move or solving a tricky boulder) tends to help me. I stop focusing on the failures at work and focus on the positives outside of it, which gives me time to readjust my thinking and be more positive at work too.
Where do you see your career going?
Industrial research, hopefully in materials or device manufacturing. I like making things and I like finding out new things — industrial research would give me both!
Your best memories at the CSCT?
There are so many! Supervising MChem students is without a doubt one of the most frustrating yet rewarding things you can do, and they will all live long in my memories. The experience makes for great stories (most of which I cannot share here…!), and it provides an excellent opportunity to learn how to manage people and projects, as well as how to prevent other students making the same mistakes later.
Aside from that, my best memories will probably be the mini rush I get whenever I make a beautiful film from ALD, or finding that my reaction has done something unusual and I have a whole new area of Chemistry to study!
Or maybe it will just be all the moments I shared with other researchers: singing Disney songs at the top of our voices in the lab, sharing a freezing tent with my cohort during our bonding week, moaning with other PhDs about being late for coffee breaks at every conference when every speaker overruns (it doesn't matter how good speakers are — all PhDs run on a strict caffeine diet!)…
You’re passionate about sports. Is there a sport you would never practice?
Football is definitely not for me — I'm not a good player and avoid watching it because so many players have such poor sportsmanship. It doesn't stop me getting super interested in world cups though — I have been known to raucously cheer England on!
Horses scare me (what are they thinking?!) so I can’t bring myself to try horse riding. I also can't do caving — I tried it once but it's far too enclosed for me! All that rock above you, no light, such little space…ugh! No thanks!
Otherwise, I'm game to at least try most sports! I'd like to try ice hockey but I can't rollerblade, so I feel that ice skating would probably not go well…
What other things do you enjoy doing when you’re not PhDing?
Listening to music, binging Netflix or cooking. I’m a sucker for getting lost on YouTube or Spotify (or other available music apps) and finding new artists. I'm also a proper foodie, so searching recipes to cook, and then sitting down with good food and a good TV series or a film is the highlight of a quiet evening for me.
On a weekend, I like hiking or camping, although I've not managed it recently with the time pressures leading up to finishing my PhD.
Any fun facts about you?
I can think of a few…
- I am a scarf fiend — I currently own 35 of them and there are at least another 4 that I would like to buy.
- Originally I wanted to study Art at University, but in the end I chose Chemistry and hated it for the first two years. In my third year, I did a placement that made me excited to finish my degree and get a job outside of Chemistry. Then I did my final year project (making molecules for solar cells) and it completely turned things around! Since then I have never looked back, and I now use my creativity to do research.
- I can’t wear tops with buttons on — they make me feel ill. My hair got caught in a teacher’s cardigan once and I think it affected me!
- I am scared of any mascot-style costume creatures. When I was young an elephant mascot jumped out on me at a supermarket, and I’ve been terrified of them since.
- I read Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix in 15 hours. My friend and I used to time how quickly we could read the Harry Potter books when they came out. Of course, we then had to read them again as we would miss most of the details.