Bethany McBride: A PhD in three minutes? It is possible!

18 December 2017

In the modern scientific environment good research often requires a good communication strategy. But could you condense an entire thesis to only three minutes? This year Research School of Chemistry PhD candidate Bethany McBride managed to achieve that, becoming a finalist in the Three Minute Thesis Competition. While seemingly a step outside of the box that usually makes up her research, Bethany says she learnt a lot of valuable skills from the process.

“The competition itself was just suggested by one of the administration staff here, and I guess I did it on a whim,” Bethany says. “But then, the research training skills team provided a lot of workshops and things to help you improve your presentation skills for the competition, and I thought that was really good. I also got to meet a lot of PhD students from other colleges that I didn't even know were here, and made some great friends. It just got better and better as it went on.”

Bethany started her undergraduate degree at the ANU in 2011, and soon developed a love for Materials Chemistry.

“I started doing a Bachelor of Science (Advanced) (Honours) programme. At the time I wasn't really sure which science I wanted to go into, but after a couple of years taking chemistry courses I started to really get into it. In my second year in particular I took a course on Materials Chemistry, and that was pretty much it from there. I found the subject that I really liked.”

Bethany launched into research as soon as she could.

“I did a research project the next year in 2013, where I worked with my present PhD supervisor actually. At the time we were working on making materials for supercapacitors in electrical devices. I just thought it was really cool that we could actually make things that could be practically used in a lot of devices, and so I stayed on with the same group for my honours year in 2014 as well, working on some new materials with some new functions. Now I'm working in the same group again, and have been doing my PhD since 2015.”

Bethany’s PhD is focused on developing ceramic materials – similar to those found in your garden variety flow pots -- to be utilised for solar technologies. 

“If I wanted to summarise it, I'd say I'm trying to make ceramics with new functions, in particular solar functions, like using sunlight to degrade wastewater, so as a photocatalyst, or using sunlight to generate electrical functions, like in solar panels for example.

“The cool thing about ceramics in particular as a material is that they're quite easy to make. There are lots of examples of ceramics that people might know, like a flower pot for example, which is made of tiny crystals of metals and oxygen. These kind of things are quite easy to produce. Silicon solar panels for example actually start out as the ceramic, but then they have to get rid of all the oxygen to make it into a silicon wafer. Whereas in this case, we wouldn't need to try and get rid of that oxygen, in fact we want to keep it in there and develop the functionality without that extra processing step.

“So, I think this is a really interesting prospect, and I did my PhD to try and see what kind of other combinations of elements I could use to get this solar property, and that's what I've been working on.”

In 2017 Bethany expanded her interests beyond the science and into public speaking, becoming a finalist for the Three Minute Thesis -- a competition in which PhD candidates are given only three minutes to explain their thesis to a lay audience.

“I guess I’ve sort of strangely developed a like for public speaking actually,” Bethany explains. “Having gone through my undergraduate research project, honours research project, and having to do a mid-year seminar, I actually now quite enjoy the process of sharing with other people what I've done, and the challenge of writing it in a way that is logical and can make others understand and be interested in what you're doing. Because I think materials are really cool, and I want other people to think they're really cool as well.”

Bethany represented The College of Sciences in the final, expanding her skills into exciting new arenas.

“I managed to get through as a representative of the College of Sciences, and went to the final. It was quite scary to give a presentation to that many people. There was something like 800 or 900 people in the crowd plus people watching online. Definitely the biggest crowd I've ever talked in front of.

“So that was really scary, but we were really well prepared, and it was very exciting. It was a great experience that I don’t think I’ll forget.”