One scientist’s journey to ResearchFest and beyond

27 Apr 2022

Shauna Flynn. Image: Leland McGann

The winner of the first ResearchFest competition talks about her work in materials science and her move from academia to working in industry in the US.

In 2016, the inaugural ResearchFest competition took place at the Inspirefest Fringe. It challenged eight PhD researchers to distil the work they do into a clear, three-minute presentation without the use of any slides.

The competition at the Silicon Republic event brought important and complex scientific research to the audience while also showcasing the importance of strong science communication skills.

Future Human

Following the eight presentations, the judges deliberated while the audience cast a vote for their favourite, and Dublin City University (DCU) researcher Shauna Flynn was crowned the winner.

In her presentation, Flynn explained how she was using block copolymers to build more transistors into a silicon substrate. This could further the progress of Moore’s Law, which predicted that the number of transistors on a computer chip would double every two years.

Now, almost six years later, we caught up with Flynn to discuss her research career and what she has been working on since her victory.

‘Knowing your forte and applying it in your job is key for success’
– SHAUNA FLYNN

“ResearchFest was so much fun and a great way to showcase the work I was doing in my PhD. Scientists can sometimes spend all their time in the lab and get little opportunity to tell people how their work relates to the real world. ResearchFest was a great platform to do that,” she said.

“I remember being nervous about public speaking, I never thought I would win. The competition had several great presenters.”

The road to ResearchFest

While her win in 2016 highlighted her passion for materials science, it took time for Flynn to realise where she wanted her career to take her when she started out.

“I started in DCU with common entry science. This course lets you take general modules in chemistry, biology, physics and maths for the first year before specialising in a specific course. After my first year I really liked chemistry, so I chose a BSc in chemical and pharmaceutical science as my course.”

Once she graduated, Flynn wanted to spend more time in education but the thoughts of jumping straight into a four-year PhD were daunting, so she opted for a master’s degree in biomedical diagnostics first. This included a three-month research project, which is where she really found her passion.

“I chose to do my research project with Dr Susan Kelleher and Dr Stephen Daniels. I spent three months working with Susan using high-brightness nanoparticles in nucleic acid hybridisation assays for biomarker detection. In simpler terms, developing new ways to detect disease markers found in blood,” Flynn explained.

“It was the first time I worked on a research project that had real-life applications. I loved being able to see how my research could be used to solve real-world problems. Susan was an amazing teacher and mentor, I really enjoyed working with her. So, when she asked me if I was interested in doing a PhD with her, I was delighted. I received an Irish Research Council enterprise-linked scholarship with Intel Ireland in October 2014 and began my PhD journey.”

Moving stateside

The work Flynn did for her PhD is what brought her to ResearchFest in 2016. Since then, she has left Ireland to live in San Francisco and, while still very much driven by innovative science, is no longer working in academia.

“In my final year of my PhD I was lucky enough to visit NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, as an intern. I spent six weeks working there, it was so exciting to work at such a prestigious institution and I fell in love with the Bay Area.”

Once she graduated, Flynn applied for a visa and began her job search in the US. Her first job in the Bay Area was at Zymergen, a biotech start-up using fermentation methods to develop novel molecules for use in consumer products, electronics and agriculture.

“The mission was to make materials more sustainable. Today, most plastics come from petrochemicals. Zymergen genetically modifies microbes to make new molecules using sugar as a feed source. I worked on developing new molecules and materials for use in sunscreens, insect repellent and skincare products as well as coatings and adhesives for use in electronics like mobile phones.”

Flynn said working for a start-up helped to make her more adaptable. “In the start-up world I had to deal with a lot of ambiguity. Project goals would often change and my work would need to pivot to align with new targets and business needs. I realised I needed to be adaptable and learn quickly; being resilient and agile was crucial to be successful in these start-up roles.”

Now, Flynn works as a senior R&D product development scientist at The Clorox Company, a US multinational producer of professional and consumer products from skincare to cleaning agents.

“For someone who spent my entire life in Ireland, I wasn’t so familiar with Clorox until I moved to the US. Their portfolio is big and diverse with cleaning products being the focus. Other brands such as Brita, Burt’s Bees, Glad and Hidden Valley Ranch are also part of the Clorox family.”

‘Most people enjoy what they are good at, whether it is doing lab work, analysing data, public speaking or teaching others’
– SHAUNA FLYNN

Having worked in the materials science industry for several years, Flynn said the biggest challenge currently facing the sector is around making materials more sustainable, reusable and biodegradable.

“We already have many options for sustainable plastics on the market. But a lot of the time the performance of these materials is inferior or more costly when compared to materials made from petrochemicals,” she said.

“Especially with specialty polymers like those used in electronics, automotive or healthcare industries. We don’t have sustainable alternatives for such materials and the consumer doesn’t want to compromise on performance.”

For early-stage researchers thinking about how to carve out their own path, Flynn said it’s important to “know your strengths” and choose a role that utilises those strengths every day.

“Most people enjoy what they are good at, whether it is doing lab work, analysing data, public speaking or teaching others. Nobody has the same skillset. Knowing your forte and applying it in your job is key for success.”

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Jenny Darmody is the deputy editor of Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com