Fengyuan Zhang: ‘I didn’t choose physics, physics chose me’

15 May 2020

Fengyuan Zhang. Image: UCD

PhD student Fengyuan Zhang shares how a long-time passion for physics led to her current research, and how she shook off her nerves for Soapbox Science.

Fengyuan Zhang is a PhD student researching the manufacture of nanoscale materials. Specifically, she’s exploring how to nano-machine ferroelectric materials, which can be used to increase data storage capacity, using atomic force microscopy (AFM).

AFM is more commonly used to scan surfaces at a high resolution, but Zhang’s research group is discovering how to use it to fabricate nanostructures. If it works, this manufacturing method would be more accessible for researchers as it doesn’t require access to nano-fabrication facilities and expensive infrastructure such as a focused ion beam.

If you’re reading this without a background in advanced and emerging physics, I might have lost you already. There’s nothing simple about what Zhang is doing and the field she’s working in is so advanced that it is spawning new scientific terms as fast as it’s developing materials and techniques. Explaining this work to someone without at least a grounding in science is certainly a challenge.

But when the call went out for Soapbox Science participants in 2019, Zhang and a fellow student decided to give it a shot. At the time, she had never heard of Soapbox Science, which puts women researchers atop strategically placed soapboxes to talk science with the public.

“After we got training ‘on the box’, I started to realise I’d need to speak on the street,” she said. “Before, I didn’t notice how you needed to be brave. We just said, ‘Let’s do it, it might be interesting for our PhD.’”

The closer the big day came, the more nervous she became. “But when I stood on the box, I forgot everything. I forgot I was nervous.” Shouting about science on South King St in Dublin – metres away from Grafton St, one of the city’s busiest shopping areas – Zhang didn’t even notice her colleague holding an umbrella up for her as the rain started to fall. She spotted people stopping and listening from afar and beckoned them to come closer.

‘For me, a scientist is someone like Marie Curie – she’s a scientist. It’s hard to say ‘I’ am a scientist’

Of course, for this year’s Soapbox Science, no members of the public will be allowed to come close to the speakers. Dr Jessamyn Fairfield, one of the organisers of Soapbox Science Ireland, explained that the events originally scheduled to take place this summer in Dublin, Cork and Galway are now likely to take place online due to Covid-19 social restrictions.

Speakers have been selected and topics being discussed this year range from marine ecology and meteorology, to Viking vision and the first stars in the universe. The organisers now face the challenge of generating that spontaneous contact between scientists and the public that can be so fulfilling for all involved. For example, after Zhang’s soapbox, one man in the crowd came up to shake her hand. “He looked like he learned a lot, so I was happy,” she said.

It’s hoped that this magic of Soapbox Science can now be made virtual, and with Fairfield’s experience pivoting Bright Club’s science-influenced stand-up nights to online shows, the 2020 soapboxers are in safe hands.

Boxing clever

Soapbox Science heightens the profile of women in science while giving them a baptism of fire in terms of public engagement. If you can get up on a soapbox and talk about your research to an unassuming audience with no primer, you can probably talk about it anywhere.

When Zhang took to her soapbox, she shared the background to her research, explaining how digital data is stored. The experience engaging with a non-academic audience allowed her to see herself in a new light. “It’s interesting that you can be a scientist at this time. Most of the time you maybe think you are a researcher. For me, a ‘scientist’ is someone like Marie Curie – she’s a scientist. It’s hard to say ‘I’ am a scientist, but … at that time you feel more like a scientist.”

Zhang also understands the impact of having visible science role models. Her father was a physics teacher and her uncle was a scientist, and they made some important introductions in her career. “I didn’t choose this subject, the subject chose me,” she said.

Something she did choose was to accept an offer to work with Prof Brian Rodriguez at the University College Dublin (UCD) School of Physics. “Brian is an expert in atomic force microscopy. He used the equivalent not only for ferroelectric material, but some piezo material and some biology material.”

Her work under Rodriguez is a continuation of her master’s work but with a narrower focus. This research, which is backed by Science Foundation Ireland, could increase the capacity of data storage through shrinking the size of memory cells. Ferroelectric materials have shown great potential for high-density data storage and, in a recently published paper in the Journal of Applied Physics, Zhang and the team outlined the advantages of AFM-based machining as a low-cost option to make them.

Now, they are focused on figuring out the ideal parameters of this manufacturing technique, such as the right force, the right tip and width etc, so as not to damage the material.

“After I graduate I want to find a job but I still want to stay in a university or a research institute. I still want to do something for research,” said Zhang of her future plans.

That journey might find her back in her native China, for personal rather than professional reasons. “My boyfriend is in China, so we are in two countries for four years now,” she explained. “That’s why I really want to go back.”

But Zhang also knows the opportunities her experience and research expertise have opened up for her as she plans her next steps in her career. “There’s not just one place I can go, there are chances to go to more places depending on what kind of life you want,” she said.

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Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic