Dr Dong Liu is currently an EPSRC postdoctoral Research Fellow and a Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 Brunel Research Fellow, based in the Department of Materials, University of Oxford. Her research is on the deformation and fracture of nuclear and energy materials. Dong will be standing on one of our soapboxes at our Oxford event. There, she’ll be talking about ‘Is Nuclear Energy Green? Is it safe?’
SS: Dong, how did you get to your current position?
DL: I have always been passionate about engineering – not only because it can fix real problems, but also it gives me a chance to understand the underlying mechanisms – this has brought me to this Engineering-Science boundary.
I came to the UK to study a Ph.D. at Bristol University (Department of Mechanical Engineering) six years ago after I finished my bachelor degree in Civil Engineering in Beijing. At Bristol, my project was to study a thin layer of ceramic coated on the surface of the turbine blades to help the cooling of these blades in the engine. It was simply fascinating to look at the different materials extracted from land-based gas turbines and the fancy ones from jet engines. My passion was to study how cracks grow in these coatings and their failure modes. Industry people were involved in the project and it was a great feeling when my research results were found useful for their practical problems. This has made me want to do more in this field, but I am now anxious not to confine myself to one particular area of endeavour.
After my Ph.D., I decided to interview for a project on materials related to nuclear power plants and from there I started my first post-doctoral job at Bristol University in the School of Physics. The material that I studied in this new project was called nuclear graphite, and it is used in the core of the current nuclear reactors in the UK; there are also international reactor designs that will use this material in the near future. I have learned a lot about this material over the last three years, and have presented my research on many occasions. I finally realised that although these materials work at high temperatures, but no one has been able to see in real time how they are damaged and fracture at these temperatures! With the motivation to see more and understand better these critical materials for nuclear power plant, I wrote proposals to EPSRC (The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) to apply for fellowships and to the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 for their funding to allow me to solve these problems. I got their kind support and started my research at Oxford University at the end of last year! Just in case you are curious about this project, here is the link.
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
DL: To be honest, as late as when I finished my Ph.D., I still was not sure about building a career in science – I was open to all options but the last thing I wanted was to restrict myself to one small topic. However, as I progressed in my studies, I have found that this career is actually one with unlimited opportunity! It sets no boundaries to research topics as long as you are keen to learn new things, it sets no restrictions to gender, nationality, and so on. In my case, this was thanks to the varied engineering and science nature of my projects, my fun colleagues and the support that I have received from universities and industry. Just like any occupation, it’s about the usefulness of my expertise which gives meaning to my research.
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research?
DL: My research is mainly based on experiments. I travel around different labs to make it work and it has literally given me extra eyes – to actually see through materials in three dimensions to observe how they crack and fail at very high temperature! I love my research on nuclear graphite but I also can apply my techniques to other energy materials that subject to load at elevated temperatures. Our energy problem becomes more severe with the increasing demands of the human race. No matter how little my contribution is compared to the global effort, I feel content in the thought that I am able to do my part in providing new input in the quest to make critical materials better and safer in the energy production industries.
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?
DL: As soon as I learned that Soapbox is hosting event in Oxford, I felt that it was my responsibility to join and contribute. This due to the following reasons. As long as I have been involved in Engineering and Science, I couldn’t help but notice how few girls are in these areas. When I went to international conferences, the leading researchers are invariably dominated by males. I believe that it is not because girls are not good at this, it is that their awareness of the excitement of being a scientist or engineer has not been awakened. If the younger generation can be shown this option, can feel this excitement, then hopefully our discipline will naturally become more populated by women scientists and engineers.
Actually, I have been involved in similar events in Bristol-Bath area, when I taught in schools and gave demonstrations to family and pupils in outreach tents in Bristol. I am also one of very few young woman representatives in materials oriented IOM3 committees.
It has already become part of my responsibility as a researcher to share ideas and experiences with young people and support those who are at a similar stage to me. Soapbox provides a perfect forum for me and for everyone like me. Really – I feel so honoured to be part of it.
SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? fear? thrill? anticipation?
DL: Definitely – ‘Excitement’.
SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
DL: When people see a female academic, often they think that she is less capable than her male peers. When a young woman scientist progresses in her academic career, she usually encounters much more resistance than her male peers. This sounds sad but it happens everyday. The situation is getting better, but if I could change one thing in the scientific culture, I would like to alter the mind-set of academics so that everyone can get the same chance to be treated fairly.
SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?
DL: In my opinion, academia is no different from any other occupation – just like everyone else, if you want to stay in a job, make sure that you really enjoy it. As Thomas Edison once said: “I never did a day’s work in my life. It was all fun.”