Nanotechnology student wins Three Minute Wonder contest

6 May 2016

PhD student Joe Spencer won the IOP's Three Minute Wonder science communication contest in a grand final at the Royal Institution on 5 May.

3 Minute Wonder

Spencer was competing against nine other finalists who took on the challenge of explaining their research to a public audience in an engaging way within three minutes. All had been winners or runners-up in regional heats that have been going on around the country since October.

Describing his work in making nanoscale wires just one or two atoms across, Spencer explained how materials constructed in this way can have completely different properties from their macroscale forms. He also explained his use of Raman spectroscopy and concluded: “Keep your eye out for nanotechnology – it really is the next big thing.”

The judges commended his clarity and self-deprecating humour – a particular asset as nanotechnology can be an intimidating concept to a nonspecialist audience, they said.

On the judging panel were radio and television presenter Maggie Philbin, the Royal Greenwich Observatory's public astronomer Marek Kukula, children’s BBC science presenter Fran Scott, and BBC Science Unit executive producer Helen Thomas.

As well as giving marks out of 10 for each contestant, the four provided feedback after each talk and the audience were invited to ask questions of individual finalists. After all the presentations, the audience were asked to vote for who they thought had given the best talk.

Spencer was voted best by both the audience and the judges. While Sebastian Wood from the National Physical Laboratory was voted runner-up by the audience, the judges chose Kerstin Goepfrich as runner-up for her talk on DNA origami, which explained how a molecular folding technique could lead to applications in medicine, computing and possibly solar cell technology.

Spencer, who is in the final year of his PhD at the University of Southampton, and Goepfrich, from the University of Cambridge, both received trophies. Goepfrich received a cheque for £250 while Spencer received £500. Presenting the prizes, the IOP’s president, Professor Roy Sambles, said of all the contestants: “UK physics is in good hands; I think that was fantastic.”

Speaking afterwards, Spencer said the competition had been tough as everyone had done so well. “I am over the moon – it's incredible,” he said.