#ChemEngCatchUp Episode 10 – Emily Cooksey
Meet the Department 30th September 2016
Emily Cooksey came highly recommended. A colleague told me how exciting Emily’s research was, and how heavily involved with the school’s outreach programmes she is, so I thought she’d be a great interviewee. And I wasn’t wrong. It turned out to be one of my favourite #ChemEngCatchUps so far:
Hi Emily. Thanks for chatting to us. Could you please describe your research, for the layman, in ten sentences or less?
My research is based on a type of technology called a microbial fuel cell. It uses bacteria that normally live in waste water and it uses them to actually clean the waste water. And the way that the systems works is – as it’s cleaning, it also produces electricity.
So it’s a new type of waste water treatment that’s a bit better for the environment.
Brilliant, thank you. And could you tell us a bit about how your research can benefit the general public?
The UK alone produces eleven billion litres of waste water every day. At the moment there is a system to clean it, which is great. Because it’s safe for us to use again. But the main problem with it is that it’s really harmful for the environment. It produces a large quantity of sludge which needs to be incinerated or chemically treated before we can release it to the environment. It uses large areas of land. And it’s quite energy intensive.
All of those things make it quite harmful to the environment. So as with a lot of other technologies at the moment, we’re trying to find cleaner ways of doing things. So my research is based on a cleaner way of cleaning our waste water.
Well that sounds very important and exciting! So how did you first get interested in this research area?
It was a little bit by accident actually. My whole journey into chemical engineering was kind of by chance. When I was at school I was convinced I was going to do medicine and I’d prepared everything towards applying for medicine at uni, but when it came to the end of year 12 and I had to write my personal statement I couldn’t remember why I wanted to do it anymore. So I panicked and went to speak to one of my teachers. She sat me down and told me to write down what I liked at school, what I was good at, and what I hated. And it was quite clear that I liked maths and chemistry and I was good at them. And she suggested chemical engineering. So that was sort of how I got into the programme.
My research was because of my fourth year master’s project. So I did my undergraduate here at Manchester and in my fourth year my master’s dissertation was with Stuart Holmes in his fuel cell group. That was the favourite part of my degree and it just followed on from there really.
So a bit by accident, but it’s good!
And who or what first inspired your interests in science and engineering?
At school I was always interested in science. I think I was really lucky that most of my teachers were fantastic and they were always really enthusiastic about science. And because I loved it anyway it just kind of progressed from there.
Then just seeing loads of different technologies in the news just made me think; ‘that’s what I want to do’.
With things that I understand and I enjoy, I’m really happy to put loads of time in. Things that I’m not so happy about, I just lose patience straight away. So for me it was just something that I always enjoyed and the teachers I had were fantastic.
Moving away from work for a question, then, can you tell us a bit about your other interests and what you get up to in your spare time?
As a PhD student I am fairly busy, but I really enjoy widening participation and outreach. So I go into schools and talk to them about chemical engineering and that kind of thing. One of my main passions is that education should be for everyone. I was really lucky that the high school down the road from me happened to be a really good one, but I don’t think education should be about luck or privilege. It should be for everyone. And outreach is a really good way of bridging that gap, particularly when telling people about chemical engineering which they’ve probably never heard of. But the opportunities it gives you are incredible, so to go into schools and say ‘this is amazing and you can all do it’, and to get them excited and engaged in school, is really rewarding.
I also have a bit of a habit of signing up for stupid sporting challenges. I’m in the lab a lot so like doing outdoor things and people keep saying ‘have you seen this challenge where you’ll be outdoors all the time?’
So my last one was the London to Paris charity bike ride for Breast Cancer now, which I did a couple of months ago (Ed: you can hear more about this with our blogger Sam Peckett). It was really hard but I really enjoyed it. I’ve got a half marathon in October, another one in May, and at some point probably a marathon. But I’m trying to put that off until the end of my PhD.
Wow! You sound very busy! Well, to end the interview, could you tell us how being here in Manchester helps your work and research?
So Manchester is obviously one of the biggest universities in the country, so whatever interest you have there is always somebody here that can help you. And I was really lucky with my supervisor, Stuart, in that we get on really well and he’s very supportive of my work and my research. So if I have a problem I know that I can go to him.
And I also know that if he can’t help me, then there’s probably ten other people within the department that can. I know that there’s always somebody who is an expert in whatever I need an expert in. Which is really helpful when you’re a PhD student and you’re struggling along in the lab. You know that there’s some kind of support there, which is really good.
Great stuff, thanks Emily! Really pleased to hear that we’re helping your research, as it sounds like you’re doing some crucial and fascinating work! Please come back to the blog to tell us more at a later date.
Everybody else, thanks for reading and please join us in a month’s time for Episode 11.