Case Study: Lessells Engineering Travel Award. Edinburgh – Dublin

“The funding proved to be a powerful catalyst; allowing me to generate numerous and wide ranging opportunities at National and International level.”


Neil Macdonald Wight is a PhD student in Mechanical Engineering at Heriot-Watt University. Neil was awarded a J M Lessells Travel Scholarship in June 2016 which enabled him to visit the Nanomaterials Processing Laboratory at Dublin City University. His three month research project was entitled “Temperature Dependent Defect Evolution and Material Characterisation of High Energy Ion Implanted Silicon Nanomaterials”.

Please can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I am a graduate of both University of Aberdeen and Heriot-Watt University. Having grown up in Angus, and after spending a number of years in industry, I am now studying for a PhD at Heriot-Watt in the School of Engineering and Physical Sciences.

Can you describe your project in no more than 50 words?

Silicon offers significant promise for energy harvesting. The controlled introduction of small material defects can successfully reduce thermal conductivity without impact on integrity and electrical performance; a combination that is key if this potential is to be realised. This project sought to understand the temperature dependent behaviour of these defects.

Did the RSE Lessells Scholarship contribute to the success of your research project? If yes, how did it help?

Without the RSE Lessells Scholarship it is difficult to imagine how my research project could have delivered the successes it did. The project presented several challenges that would have been difficult to overcome without the resources, focus and support uniquely afforded by the Scholarship.

What would you have done if you did not receive RSE funding?

I would have still endeavoured to obtain experimental answers however findings would certainly have been narrower in scope. A significant amount of broader benefits and research related opportunities would have been lost. It is perhaps then more interesting to give an answer in the context of what I could not have done without my RSE funding. The funding proved to be a powerful catalyst; allowing me to generate numerous and wide ranging opportunities at National and International level. These will continue to bring benefits over the coming years and as an early career researcher will be invaluable. Without the support of the RSE and the J.M. Lessells Committee none of this would have been possible.

What was your favourite part of your time abroad?

The research experience was my favourite part. Different facilities, different challenges, different methods! Working with another research group in such an environment has undoubtedly strengthened existing skillsets while equipping me with valuable new ones. The people at DCU were very generous with their time. It made it a lot of fun even after many hours in the lab.

Were there any unexpected outcomes?

Several. From the research side, we successfully developed a new approach for non-destructive measurement of thermal conductivity that will hopefully prove beneficial to researchers in the future. This wasn’t part of our original scope but proved necessary to progress the core objectives.

A sense that as an award holder I was part of the RSE family was also quite unexpected. The staff and committee have been engaged and supportive at a level far beyond my expectations. That has certainly proven to be an inspiring and invigorating part of the process.

Taking a broader view, the breadth of additional opportunities I would ultimately be able to generate through a combination of RSE support and research findings certainly wasn’t something I had anticipated prior to receiving funding. New project discussions at UK and EU level, international conference and workshop invitations, industry interest and potential research commercialisation all fall into the unexpected outcomes category. It was an exciting year.

Did you disseminate your findings to your colleagues (at home and abroad) and/or the general public? If so, how?

At any research level it is important to let others know about the work you are doing and that has certainly been a focus over the Fellowship. To date, the research undertaken has led to two peer reviewed journal publications, a talk at one of the most influential international conferences in my field, a presentation at a national level thermoelectric event, two invitations to talk at major international conferences and further funded participation in an international workshop on thermoelectric materials. A presentation on this work was also awarded a prize at the recent institute conference held at Heriot-Watt University.

What do you plan to do now that the award has finished?

Short term objective is of course to complete my PhD. Beyond that however I hope to secure an early career fellowship at Heriot-Watt University – continuing my own development and taking an active role leading Scottish and UK engineering research on a global stage. The RSE Lessells scholarship is a tangible demonstration of what can be realised through strong partnership and international collaboration and I am keen to build upon its success as much as possible.

Would you say that the award was helpful in terms of progressing your career? If so, how?

The award by the RSE has unquestionably been helpful in terms of my career. Receiving an award from a body as respected as RSE is a significant achievement and one that carries considerable prestige. The award has allowed me to take my work internationally, evaluating my own research quality against peers on a much larger stage. Having this opportunity for perspective and reflection; to gauge what is needed to ensure I can produce internationally recognised research while at the same time enhancing my own research profile and developing new skillsets has proven highly advantageous. Over and above this, the award has proven to be an incredibly powerful platform from which to generate opportunities and overcome the initial inertia often faced as an early career researcher. I expect to be able to continue to leverage these broad advantages over the remainder of my PhD and beyond. A testament to just how important such support can be.

Do you have any advice for anyone thinking of applying for RSE Lessells Travel Scholarship?

Don’t underestimate what can be achieved with an RSE Lessells Scholarship. It is an important award that not only enables you to achieve significant research outcomes, build new skillsets and begin to develop a research network; but it is also one that can provide momentum that is much needed as an early career researcher.

Do you have any other comments that you would like to share?

Only to extend my gratitude to the RSE, the late Professor J.M. Lessells and his family. It has been a uniquely rewarding experience; one that has benefited me tremendously and that will continue to do so in the years ahead. None of this would have been possible without your support and I remain thankful for it.