Biolaser research student wins gold prize at STEM for Britain

14 March 2017

A PhD student working on biolasers has won the gold award for physics in the STEM for Britain poster competition held in parliament on 13 March.

Biolaser research student wins gold prize at STEM for Britain
John Deehan Photography Ltd

Soraya Caixeiro, who is completing a PhD in bio-compatible silk random lasing at King’s College London, was presented with the Cavendish Medal and a cheque for £3,000 at the finals of the competition in Westminster, which is held to showcase frontier R&D in parliament and promote dialogue between early-career researchers and MPs and peers.

Hundreds of researchers entered the competition, with around 210 across all science categories being chosen to display posters, including 30 in the physics section. All the finalists were able to explain their work to the judges and to visiting peers and MPs, including many whose constituencies encompass the research facilities or universities at which the participating researchers are based.

Caixeiro explained that biolasers, which are thinner than a strand of hair, can be implanted in the human body and are biocompatible and biodegradable yet can produce a high-intensity, single wavelength output for sensing biologically relevant compounds.

Biolaser research student wins gold prize at STEM for Britain
John Deehan Photography Ltd

Speaking after receiving her award from the IOP’s chief executive, Professor Paul Hardaker (pictured left with Caixeiro), she said: “I am really surprised, especially after seeing all the great work that is displayed here tonight. I thought ‘they have got me up here [on the podium] by mistake’. It is always nice to hear your work being recognised.” Stressing the international dimension of science and scientists, Caixeiro said that she had been born in the UK but spent the years from the ages of eight to 18 in Portugal before returning to Britain. “I feel just as much British as I do Portuguese,” she said.

The silver medal for physics and £2,000 was won by Matthew Aldous, a PhD student from the University of Southampton, who presented his work on developing a compact laser-cooling system for supercooling gas atoms to enable more rapid prototyping of quantum sensors. He said: “It’s just fantastic to have the opportunity to talk to parliamentarians about the work that I do. It’s really great to be around so many brilliant scientists who have worked really hard to be here today, to share my research with them and to see the research that they have brought to share.”

Biolaser research student wins gold prize at STEM for Britain
John Deehan Photography Ltd

Ellen Kendrick, a PhD student at the University of Leeds, won the bronze medal for physics and £1,000. Her work involves using atomic force microscopy to pull apart protein molecules to investigate their strength and flexibility at a range of temperatures. She said afterwards: “I am very happy and very surprised. It’s been good fun and I have spoken to representatives of my home and university MPs and am possibly going to meet one of them later on in Leeds.”

Speaking before making the presentations, Hardaker thanked the organisers of the competition for keeping science on the parliamentary agenda and told the participants: “I hope you don’t underestimate the importance of what you do or the importance of talking about it and I think the best of it was on display today.

“Whatever the political landscape, science is a key international endeavour and it will remain so. It’s really important that we have people like you and that you are working together on the interdisciplinary boundaries. I know that all the learned societies represented today are really keen to help and support you in your endeavours in science.”

Stephen Metcalfe MP, chair of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee (PSC), which organises STEM for Britain together with the learned societies, outlined some of its history since it was formed on the outbreak of the Second World War to bring science and parliament together. He hoped that rather than being the end of a process, the finals of the competition would be the start of further interactions between early-career scientists and MPs. Congratulating all those who had taken part, he said: “Being here is winning – you’re displaying your work in parliament along with the best in your fields.”

Stephen Benn, director of parliamentary affairs for the Royal Society of Biology and a vice-president of the PSC (pictured top with Hardaker, Caixeiro and Metcalfe), conducted the prize-giving ceremony and introduced Sharon Todd, executive director of the Society of Chemical Industry, which sponsored the Westminster Wharton Medal for the overall winner of STEM for Britain. The medal was won by Lauren McNeill, gold medal winner in the biological and biomedical sciences category, and presented by Sue Wharton, widow of the late Dr Eric Wharton, the competition’s founder.