What exactly is research?
Dr George Rice had never considered postgraduate research until he was studying engineering as an undergraduate.
Since then, his PhD has led him to a stimulating career working with inventors to take their ideas to the real world.
That's the exciting bit - doing things that haven't been done before.
Dr George Rice in the Technology Demonstrator on Jubilee Campus.
“I don’t know about you, but when I was at school I hadn’t really heard of anyone that ‘went into research’. It was a world I was completely unaware of.
I’d always been interested in recycling and energy and building things, but I assumed that meant I’d go on to work as a technician or someone in the council looking after environmental issues.
When I started considering my options for university – which wasn’t a given by the way, I was the first in my family to go – I was drawn to courses in engineering. I realised I could actually study all the things I was interested in.
An original contribution to knowledge
So I embarked on an undergraduate degree in environmental engineering and was encouraged by my lecturers to stay on for a PhD – I had no idea what this meant until they explained that you have to make ‘an original contribution to knowledge’, whether that's in engineering, medicine, science, social sciences or arts.
I did my PhD in something called process engineering. I’d really enjoyed doing the laboratory and project based parts of my degree – and they’d seen that – so as long as I got a 2:1 I would go straight on to do a PhD. And I got paid (a small amount) during the three years.
Basically I worked with two supervisors on my own in-depth project that looked at how to go about recycling waste tyres, specifically looking at incineration and its by-products.
Supervisors are academics who are already researching and teaching in the area you’re interested in. If you’ve done your undergraduate degree here at Nottingham you’ve probably met academics that you connect with. They might supervise your project.
Because Nottingham is a leading university, your supervisor will probably be well known in the area and well connected with the world you’re interested in.
A PhD is mainly self-motivated
You meet with them fairly regularly to report back on your progress and to get guidance on what you should be reading or which way you might want to take your project. A PhD is mainly self motivated though and it is up to you to steer it. First you need to understand everything that’s been done before, then you can start breaking new ground. That’s the exciting bit – doing things that haven’t been done before.
You start off by reading around your subject to find out where there might be a gap that you could look into. I identified that the by-products from incineration of tyres were potentially very valuable, so I started to work on how we could separate these materials. I devised my project to explore that challenge, which included running prototype systems on real commercial incineration sites to test the findings.
Throughout the first two years you collect data, read more, test things. You also present pieces of your work at conferences, nationally and internationally, and get feedback from other researchers and academics in the field who might help you see things in a different way.
Sharing that excitement with other researchers is addictive
There are two or three moments I remember really making breakthroughs. Getting the results of an experiment that has taken months to plan and weeks to carry out, and then finding out it has confirmed your suspicions, is really exciting. Sharing that excitement with other researchers is addictive. You also get the chance to share this knowledge at international conferences and in widely read and important publications.
The end of a PhD is a thesis – a couple of hundred pages covering three years of work – and a viva voce, where your knowledge is tested by experts in the field. You’re ready by then. Nobody knows more about your subject than you.
After I finished my PhD, I worked as a post-doctoral researcher at the University. Working out how to solve seemingly impossible challenges is what research is about. Making breakthroughs makes the long hours worthwhile.
I know the skills I've developed will be invaluable
After numerous research projects (most of which were confidential) I started to get interested in how the new knowledge and inventions developed in research projects could be taken forward into new products and services that we all benefit from.
This process is called technology transfer or commercialisation. It includes things like patents and license deals and requires very close working with the researchers to spot opportunities and to manage the long and difficult process of turning a new discovery into something useful.
You have to understand research to be able to do this job. So a PhD was vital. I’m based at The University of Nottingham and have been involved in the development of new industrial microwave heating products, new heart rate monitors, new energy saving technologies and much more.
You learn how to ‘do’ research during a PhD and this knowledge is applied in all future projects that you might get involved in. Whatever I go on to do, I know the skills I developed through my research will always be invaluable."