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Competition challenges students and researchers to communicate impact of ideas in three minutes

Competition challenges students and researchers to communicate impact of ideas in three minutes

Science enthusiasts from diverse backgrounds gathered at the Department of Engineering this summer to pitch their innovative ideas to an audience, including a panel of judges, in just three minutes.

I thought it was a great event with good energy.

Robert Kunzmann, runner-up

The Falling Walls Lab Cambridge gave 18 students and early-career professionals of all disciplines, and from various universities and start-ups, the opportunity to showcase breakthrough research that creates a positive impact on science and society. 

Among the 18 presenters competing for a place at the Falling Walls Lab finale, to be held in Berlin, in November, were six presenters with affiliations to the Department of Engineering. They were:

The winner was Yizhou Yu, PhD student at the MRC Toxicology Unit, with his presentation titled Breaking the wall of dementia. Yizhou will go forward to compete in the Falling Walls Lab finale.

The runner-up was Cambridge Engineering alumnus Robert Kunzmann.

Third place went to PhD student Swetha Kannan, from the Department of Pathology, who is also a member of the CRUK Cambridge Centre, with her presentation titled Breaking the wall of inequitable cancer care.

The audience award winner was Dr Nadia Radzman, from the Sainsbury Laboratory, with her presentation titled Breaking the wall of forgotten legumes

The jury included Emeritus Professor Dame Ann Dowling (jury chair); Dr Sakthy Selvakumaran, Fellow, Newnham College, Cambridge; Dr Joseph Cheriyan, Consultant Clinical Pharmacologist, Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Trust; Professor Dr Jack Hawkins, University of California, Davis; Mr Alexander Bleistein, Deputy Head of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), UK; Ms Andrea Noske, First Counsellor (Science), German Embassy London.

The Falling Walls Lab Cambridge was organised by the Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge; the Federal Foreign Office of Germany; and the DAAD.

Breaking the wall of Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs) investment gap

Image credit: Lloyd Mann – University of Cambridge.

PhD student Ali Niazi, from the IfM, part of the Department of Engineering, shared his proposal for an innovative framework that seamlessly integrates financial and impact considerations with regards to the SDGs.

“Aligning financial interests of investors with the SDGs introduces complexity and ambiguity into decision-making,” he said. “At the heart of our breakthrough solution, we will integrate traditional portfolio optimisation methods with multi-criteria decision-making approaches. This empowers us to prioritise investments based on financial viability, and the utility that responsible investors yield from, aligning their investments with the SDGs.”

He added: “By incorporating insights from behavioural science and employing machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI), we aim to develop a human-like decision-making framework tailored to individual investors’ experiences in different contexts.”

Breaking the wall of profitable CO2 capture

Image credit: Lloyd Mann – University of Cambridge.

Dr Mohammad Saghafifar, Research Associate in Thermo Physical and Thermochemical Energy Storage, shared details of his project, which involves the development of a battery that operates by capturing CO2 from high emitting industries such as cement and steel producers.  

“A carbon capture battery monetises the variation in cost of electricity to drive down the cost of CO2 capture,” he said. “Our modelling shows that this technology has the potential to make the process of capturing CO2 profitable.”

He added: “Results show that businesses can profit between $10-$50 for capturing one tonne of CO2. The second advantage of this technology is that it provides storage capability to the grid, enabling wider renewable energy implementation.”

What did you enjoy the most about the Falling Walls Lab competition?

“Presenting years of research in a mere three minutes was an intellectually stimulating exercise,” said Dr Saghafifar. “It served as a valuable reminder of how often we engage in discussions with our colleagues, while inadvertently employing technical jargon without fully realising it.”

Breaking the wall of valvular heart disease

Engineering PhD student Nirmani Rathnayake pitched her research project to do with the development of a wearable device for exercise-induced heart sound monitoring, with embedded sensors that can simultaneously 'listen' to all of your heart valves. Data can then be transmitted to doctors.

Breaking the wall of plastic recycling

Image credit: Lloyd Mann – University of Cambridge.

Alumnus Robert Kunzmann, COO at AC Biode, a cleantech start-up based in Luxembourg and Japan, shared the news that the company has successfully depolymerised polyester terephthalate (PET) into methanol – a technology that he says “could turn the tide in plastic recycling”.

“Plastic waste is one of the most serious global issues,” he said. “So how can we create closed-loop circular plastic recycling? AC Biode’s novel approach operates below 200°C. We do not use expensive solvents during the process – only the catalyst and water. Secondly, the process produces methanol, a high-value commodity, which can be converted to formaldehyde, the basic building block to produce plastics and other applications.”

He added: “The technology, which we aim to commercialise in three years, is not only applicable to PET but also to polyethylene and other plastic waste.”

What did you think of the Falling Walls Lab competition?

“I thought it was a great event with good energy,” he said.

Breaking the wall of language

Image credit: Lloyd Mann – University of Cambridge.

Master’s student Igor Sterner is specialising in Information and Computing Engineering. 

He shared details of his work on the linguistic phenomenon of code-switching – the process of shifting from one language or dialect (linguistic code) to another, depending on the social context or conversational setting.

“I pitched an application of the work I do on code-switching, where my focus has recently been to automatically identify the point when users alternate between languages,” he said. “In the classroom, we often switch in and out of the language we are learning.” 

He added: “The application I am developing brings this technology to a mobile app. You begin by typing in your main language and the system will gently guide you to switch into the new language more and more often.

“I would also like to say that the Centre for Languages and Inter-Communication (CLIC) is one of the most special parts of studying Engineering at Cambridge and it has been a central feature of my time in the Department.”

What did you think of the Falling Walls Lab competition?

“The Falling Walls Lab 2023 was an amazing opportunity to practice handling the nerves pitching in front of a crowd and to hear of the ideas of others,” said Igor. “It was an inspiring day to remember.”

Breaking the wall of nausea free augmented reality (AR) glasses

Dr Pawan Shrestha, Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Fellow at Cambridge, pitched a proof-of-concept wearable AR experience that keeps virtual objects in focus at different depths, offering  comfortable 3D viewing that causes no nausea or eyestrain to the user. It displays images on the retina using pixel beam scanning, which ensures the image stays in focus, regardless of the distance that the user is fixating on.

All of the presenters and members of the jury. Credit: Lloyd Mann – University of Cambridge.

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