Niall Ward-O'Brien

A cropped version of Niall ObrienDegree: MChem Chemistry

Graduate role: PhD student, Centre for Doctoral Training in Polymers, Soft Matter and Colloids

Niall went from our four-year MChem course to doing a PhD in our centre for doctoral training. He is also an outreach volunteer and spends some of his time helping schoolchildren get to grips with science. He plans to use the communication skills he has learned during his time at Sheffield to move into informing government policy once his PhD is completed.

"I chose to do my PhD in the Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) because of its focus on research projects that tackle real technological problems, working in concert with industrial partners who could really benefit from a solution we might come up with. Often research projects seem quite a long way from being of use to anyone – this feels very different.

"I’ve been doing outreach volunteering for a couple of years at Sheffield, mostly with primary school children, but also with some year 11 students. I’ve done synthesis practicals, making simple drug molecules like paracetamol, and as part of the CDT have been involved with a group in designing our own outreach activities related to our PhD projects.

"We decided to create a set of experiments related to surfaces and the interactions that happen on them, looking at the shapes bubbles form in frames of different geometries and how changing surface tension can have all kinds of strange effects. Surface tension is central to making foams work, so it was great to be able to share it with other people. It is sometimes tricky to pitch explanations at the right level and avoid jargon, but that’s a great skill to have as a researcher.

"When I've finished my PhD, I’m hoping to become involved in government policy. As part of the Science in Policy group in Sheffield, I am very interested in how scientists can get more involved in and better at communicating evidence to a policy audience. The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology is particularly interesting to me – they write short summaries of new scientific areas that policymakers can read to get up to date with the latest scientific advances in that area."