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Sinéad Mannion: Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund awardee 2023

Plasma physicist Sinéad’s PhD involves modelling a low-temperature plasma biomedical device with the potential to kill cancer cells, heal wounds and disinfect surfaces. 

Tell us about your work – and what drives you

I’m a plasma physicist. Plasma is known as the fourth state of matter, after solid, liquid and gas. A plasma is an ionised gas created when enough energy is supplied to strip the electrons from the atoms. Plasma physics is an exciting field to be in as the applications are so diverse, including nuclear fusion, manufacturing of silicon chips, agriculture and medicine.

My area of interest is low-temperature plasmas, which can be generated at atmospheric pressure and temperature. My PhD project is modelling a low-temperature plasma biomedical device called an Atmospheric Pressure Plasma Jet under the supervision of Dr Tom Field in collaboration with Japanese researcher Professor Tomoyuki Murakami. Plasma jets can be used in medicine to kill cancer cells, heal wounds and disinfect surfaces by killing bacteria and viruses.

While my PhD is theoretically based, I love that there are real-life applications for society and that my work will complement the work of the experimentalists to optimise our plasma jet.

What drew you to this area of physics?

I still remember the first day of physics class, sitting in my school uniform, army jacket and undercut. On the blackboard my brilliant teacher, Ms Sweeney, drew a wave. She labelled the wavelength, the amplitude, the peaks and the troughs. Then she wrote down an equation, c=λ.f. She explained that by multiplying the wavelength by frequency we could calculate the speed of light or sound. That was my lightbulb moment.

Physics was the perfect subject for me. It married my two great loves, maths and science. From that moment on I was hooked.

I knew then I wanted to do physics at university. I was so determined I wrote a letter to the physics degree course coordinator and asked him if I could go there even though I was in a wheelchair! I’d forgotten this until my graduation day, when Tim Roe, the man I unknowingly wrote to, told me that he’d kept my letter from all those years back. The support I had from Tim and the other staff, at what is now the Atlantic Technological University, was phenomenal. Tables were adapted, ramps were made and I continued on like everyone else.

After my undergrad, my health seriously deteriorated and I was unsure what to do next. I found an online master’s course at Dublin City University in plasma physics. I didn’t even know what plasma was! The master’s was run with Queen’s University Belfast and my project was plasma modelling with Professor Bill Graham. Working with Bill was one of the highlights of my academic journey and the icing on the cake was when he asked Dr Brian Reville to take me on for a PhD.

What is the potential impact of your work?

Low-temperature atmospheric pressure plasma jet devices have the potential for a wide range of uses in medicine. These devices generate chemically reactive species such as electrons, ions and radicals and can be operated at room temperature and atmospheric pressure, eliminating the vacuum systems needed for low pressure plasmas.

The better the computer model for a particular plasma jet, the more fundamental physics we can study. This will lead to a greater understanding of the plasma. My PhD work will aid in the optimisation of Atmospheric Pressure Plasma Jets and improve performance.

There are some plasma physics behaviours that can’t be measured using experimental diagnostic techniques. Having a fully validated and benchmarked model can increase our understanding of the fundamental physics concerned in plasma jets, such as plasma-surface interactions. Knowing the plasma-surface interaction behaviours will enable plasma jet innovations and lead to further biomedical applications in the future.

What does winning the scholarship mean to you – and what difference will it make?

Being associated with Professor Dame Bell Burnell is a dream come true. She’s been an exceptional role model to me and all the women on the island of Ireland. I’m delighted and proud to be an ambassador for her and continue her fight for more diversity in physics.

As an ambassador, I get to do my two favourite things – talk about physics and encourage people to think about doing physics. I love university open days, talking to students and helping them choose what they want to do.

Finally, as a part-time student I’m ineligible for funding, so over the course of my PhD I’ve had to self-fund – paying for my fees, day-to-day living expenses and for attending conferences and workshops.

Being physically disabled means my life is more expensive than a typical PhD student. For example, going to a conference or a workshop overseas involves a full-scale military operation of sourcing wheelchair accessible cars, hotels and medical equipment. This has been a massive financial sacrifice and this fund will take a lot of pressure off me so that I can now fully concentrate on my PhD.

I would ask any funders reading this to think about their funding structures and to consider students who don’t fit in one particular box.

What challenges have you faced to get to this point?

I have Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), a form of Motor Neurone Disease. It’s a muscle wasting disease that affects all the muscles in my body, so I find it hard to breathe and eat, I have limited movement in my hands and I use a wheelchair – but my condition has not affected my brain, thankfully.

My school career councillor advised me to do a secretarial course, which I assume was because it was a sitting down job! Thankfully I didn’t listen to him and now I am the first person in my extended family to have a university degree and master’s.

I think of my life as having two challenges. There’s the challenge of my environment not being accessible or that I am simply too weak or small to do something. In physics this means not being able to do experiments, but I overcame this by becoming a theoretical physicist.

The other challenge is my war with my body! My mind is strong but my body lets me down – all the time. My body’s current war is with my PhD. Since I started it, I’ve had so many operations, A&E and ICU visits I felt that my body might actually win and I might never finish. I’m always off sick and for me what’s worse than being sick is sending the doctor’s note to my supervisors, imagining them rolling their eyes and saying, “oh what’s wrong with her now!”  

I know they’re not and everyone is incredibly supportive but I would just like a good run at my PhD and not be off all the time. Having my focus on the PhD has kept me going through it all. At the moment, thanks to a lot of medical devices, equipment and new medications and treatments, my PhD is winning the battle and I’m still here. I will finish it! 

“To anyone who may be thinking of doing physics at university or as a career, do not be put off by society’s incorrect assumption that physicists are these mad geniuses. It’s mostly just people who work hard and enjoy solving problems.”

What would you say to those who have also faced barriers to following their dreams to pursue physics at university and beyond?  

I’ve found everyone in physics to be welcoming and helpful. Ask lots of questions and talk to people when you’re choosing a university course. You may have barriers but everyone is there to help and make it as easy as possible. Be open about what you need. 

No matter what university course you do it’ll be hard work, so you may as well work hard on something that truly interests you. A degree in physics is great because you get to do all this theory and also apply it in experiments. The experiments were my favourite part of my undergrad.  

To anyone who may be thinking of doing physics at university or as a career, do not be put off by society’s incorrect assumption that physicists are these mad geniuses. It’s mostly just people who work hard and enjoy solving problems.  

Why do you think diversity in physics is so important?  

They say variety is the spice of life! I’d extend this to diversity in physics. The more diverse a group, the more creative ideas and critical thinking there will be. When people only work with people like themselves there is bound to be group-think, where everyone thinks the same and no one challenges or questions the status quo.  

People who’ve had a completely different life experience, whether they’re from the LGBTQ+ community, neurodivergent, physically disabled or from an ethnic or gender minority, have a different way of viewing the world and a fresh perspective to offer. Diversity in physics is a no-brainer.  

What would you say to someone thinking about applying to the fund?

What motivates me when I apply for anything is the Irish National Lottery slogan: “If you’re not in, you can’t win!”.

It’s hard to put yourself out there. If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent your whole life trying to fit in and not make an issue of being different. It can be hard to admit things have been more difficult for you, that challenges have affected your academic journey and that your life may have been more of struggle than that of your classmates. No one really knows what anyone else is going through, it’s just that my challenges can’t be hidden.

If you’re thinking of applying for the fund, go for it. You have as much right as anyone to be here. The best advice I’d offer you is to be yourself in the application and interview. This is the one time that you don’t need to pretend.