ResearchFest winner urges others to share their research

8 Jul 2016

Shauna Flynn on stage at Inspirefest. Photo via Conor McCabe Photography

DCU researcher Shauna Flynn won ResearchFest at the Inspirefest 2016 Fringe by speaking about her quest to make smaller transistors.

Competitions can bring out strengths we never knew we had – and for Shauna Flynn, ResearchFest demonstrated that she is at ease onstage telling an audience about her research.

The premise of the ResearchFest competition sounds simple – stand up on stage and explain your PhD research to an audience. But there are a few catches: the audience may not know much about science, you have no slides and – here’s the really tough bit – you have just three minutes to explain your work.

On the night, PhD researcher Flynn was one of eight researchers to take their place in the limelight in Merrion Square, Dublin, and to be grilled by a judging panel after their talks.

“The competition was stiff, I was really shocked to win,” said Flynn, whose talk focused on her PhD research at Dublin City University.

Building blocks for transistor parts

Her project is looking at self-assembling ‘block copolymers’ to make tiny parts for transistors, like assembling Lego blocks, rather than using lasers to etch components. The idea, as she explains in the talk, is to enable smaller and smaller transistors on chips that in turn can support more computing power for devices and the internet of things (IoT).

“My work is based around block copolymers, which form patterns on surfaces at the nanometre-scale,” explained Flynn, whose research is supervised by Dr Susan Kelleher and Dr Stephen Daniels.

“They could [be used to] make transistor components, and it uses technology processes that are already implemented, so it could be easily brought in.”

Flynn’s work is funded by the Irish Research Council and Intel under the Enterprise Partnership Scheme, and she has access to a mentor from Intel.

“It is amazing to have that expertise from Intel, and it has given me more of a perspective on the industry and enterprise side,” she said.

Mix of disciplines

Originally from Swords in north Dublin, Flynn was a keen student of science in school, and studied chemistry, biology and agricultural science (her father is a farmer). Next she studied science at DCU, specialising in chemical and pharmaceutical sciences. She went on to do a master’s at the Biomedical Diagnostics Institute that combined biology, immunology and surface science and today her PhD involves physics and engineering.

‘I didn’t think this was something I would enjoy or be good at, but I took the leap and the feedback I got is that I am good at it’

“I’m constantly learning, and it’s great, everyone is so collaborative,” said Flynn, who finds she can bring her own experience to the team. “If you are in a room full of physicists and you are the chemist, they want to ask you questions and you want to ask them questions.”

That mixing of disciplines – a theme that emerged strongly during talks at Inspirefest 2016 – provides fuel for coming up with solutions in the lab, she added. “I work with engineers, physicists, chemists, biologists – we all come from different backgrounds and we think about things in different ways, so that really helps when we are solving problems together.”

Taking to the stage

Earlier this year, Flynn entered DCU’s Tell it Straight competition, opting to submit a video entry rather than giving a talk. The same video won her a place at ResearchFest – but this time she had to take to the stage and talk.

“Inspirefest provided us with training from SNP Communications and that helped me with confidence and speaking,” she said. “I hadn’t presented like this in front of people before, and I was nervous, but the training helped, as did having other researchers there from DCU – we all supported each other.”

Flynn encourages young researchers who may be a little shy about speaking in public to step up and give it a go. “I didn’t think this was something I would enjoy or be good at, but I took the leap and the feedback I got is that I am good at it,” she said. “This is definitely something I will be continuing.”

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication