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Madeleine Fisher: Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund Awardee 2024

The scholarship is allowing Madeleine to focus solely on her PhD, where she is working on research that could ultimately help societies all over the world reach net zero via low-cost organic semiconductors.

Photophysicist Madeleine Fisher smiling while standing in front of a whiteboard covered in equations

Tell us about your work – and what drives you

My PhD project will focus on understanding the photophysics of organic optoelectronic materials – and more specifically improving the efficiency of organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs). These materials are carbon-based semiconducting materials, similar to their silicon counterparts, harnessing solar energy to produce electricity which can then be used in applications such as OLEDs and solar cells. They have many advantages, such as being low-cost and easy to manufacture.

The problem with OLEDs is that they experience something known as “efficiency roll-off”, which means that the efficiency decreases as brightness increases, limiting their use for energy-efficient lighting. During my project, I’ll perform time-resolved spectroscopy on operating devices to try and understand the processes that lead to this drop in efficiency. Currently, almost all measurements are made on films and not operating devices, which means this is a super-exciting new area which can be developed alongside my research group.

By performing these measurements, we’ll be able to develop new techniques to study devices in operation, identify the processes leading to the observed efficiency roll-off, and use this knowledge to design devices that overcome these limitations. Having the opportunity to perform research in this cutting-edge area of photophysics which has tangible real-world impacts is incredibly exciting!

What drew you to this area of physics?

My undergraduate studies were in chemistry, but I knew fairly early on that a focus on physics was the direction I wanted to take. I’ve always been fascinated by physics and I spent a lot of my spare time watching videos and lectures online trying to understand science that I wasn’t being taught at A-level and university. It didn’t occur to me until later on in my undergraduate degree that I could combine my passion for physics and chemistry.

I became interested in optoelectronics and photophysics during my second year. It stood out to me because it combined elements of everything that I loved about physics. Understanding why things happen has always been the most interesting part of science for me and studying photophysics has allowed me to understand why things are happening at the deepest level.

I completed a summer research project using [programming language] Python and computational methods for the rational design of new organic semiconductor materials and my master’s project focused on the application of these materials for light-mediated water disinfection. After completing both, one theoretical and one practical, I knew that I wanted to continue this area of study.

Working with some of the best researchers in my area continues to be a great source of motivation for me. Being accepted into the University of St Andrews to continue studying organic optoelectronic materials was a great surprise and has only made me more excited for my future in research.

What is the potential impact of your work?

One thing that drew me to this area was how I could make a noticeable impact on society with the work that I’m doing. The climate crisis is a continuing issue for society – and one that requires novel solutions if we’re going to solve it. Developing materials that can generate energy and are formed from sustainable resources is critical to reaching our goal of net zero. Semiconductors can help. Currently, the main semiconductors used globally are silicon-based. Organic semiconductors can provide a low-cost alternative – but only if their efficiency can be improved.

The wide range of applications for these materials makes it a super-interesting and diverse area of study – from solar panels to photocatalysts which can provide clean drinking water with only the power of sunlight. Due to their low cost, this also means that people all over the globe can potentially benefit. This is important to me as I believe there should be no barrier to making use of new technology that could help people’s lives. I truly believe that my research can have a tangible and positive impact on the world around me.

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

Winning this scholarship still hasn’t sunk in. I applied on a whim when prompted by my supervisor and didn’t have any expectations, so when I heard I was successful I was over the moon. For the majority of my adult life I’ve known I wanted to pursue a research career.

Throughout my undergraduate degree, I’ve consistently juggled work commitments alongside my studies, dedicating 20 hours a week to support my education financially. While this experience has been invaluable, it’s meant having to sacrifice hours of study and rest. Winning this scholarship will allow me to put all my efforts into my studies. No longer having to worry about money is something I’m so grateful for and is a huge weight off my shoulders.

This scholarship will allow me to have the PhD experience I’ve always dreamed of without worry. I’m so excited to work alongside my research group and contribute positively to the academic community.

What challenges have you faced to get to this point?

The biggest challenge I’ve had to face has been my stammer, a communication disability which I believe is largely overlooked. People often underestimate the impact that having a stammer has on every element of my life, which makes me feel like my struggles are not important enough to bother anybody with. From my initial undergraduate interview to my final-year oral examinations, there’s never been a time when my stammer hasn’t had a major effect on my academic progress. In science one of the most important things is being able to effectively communicate your ideas, which I never believed I would be able to do.

“There should be no barrier to making use of new technology that could help people’s lives. I truly believe that my research can have a tangible and positive impact on the world around me.”

As a woman in physics, I’ve had many experiences which have had a profound impact on me. I’ve often felt feelings of imposter syndrome and that I was only viewed by my peers for my womanhood, rather than my ability as a scientist. I know many other women have felt the same.

Thankfully, I’ve had such a supportive group of friends and family, but I’m keenly aware that not everyone in my position is as privileged. It’s taken me a long time to learn that people want to hear what I have to say and that my ideas are just as important as anybody else's. I hope that I can have a positive impact on somebody else’s academic journey just as they have on mine. Nobody deserves to feel like they aren’t good enough.

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

One piece of advice I would give is not to be afraid to take up space. Pursuing a research career regardless of your situation is incredibly daunting and understandably when you experience challenges that many people don’t, it can only seem even more out of reach. Once you begin to realise that there is a space for you in physics, that’s when these opportunities open up to you.

Surrounding yourself with supportive people – whether that be friends, family or academic staff – is so important in developing a sense of self-belief which will give you the motivation to pursue your dreams. Don’t let anyone make you feel like you don’t belong. That’s easier said than done of course, but once you know this there’s nothing that can hold you back. People want to hear your voice!

Why do you think diversity in physics is so important?

In my eyes, without a variety of views there can never be meaningful progress in physics or any scientific field. More diversity means more creativity, which is often overlooked when people think about what’s required to be a successful scientist. Promoting conversation and rational debate is what’s needed if we want to keep physics moving forward and ensuring that we’re hearing from everyone is the most important part of achieving this.

Providing role models for young adults wanting to pursue a career in physics, or just a research career in general, is also where diversity becomes important. For example, a young girl with a passion for maths seeing someone like her achieving the highest level in her field might be the difference between her pursuing higher education or not.