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Department of Engineering

PhD student’s electronic engineering achievements celebrated with award

PhD student’s electronic engineering achievements celebrated with award

Postdoctoral Research Associate Nicole Weckman has been highlighted as one of the brightest and most talented young electronic engineers in the UK today.

I’m trying to develop biosensors to help diagnose people at early stages of different diseases. It’s quite an interdisciplinary project in that it combines electronics but also mechanical engineering, biochemistry and biology.

PhD student Nicole Weckman

Nicole was selected by Electronics Weekly as part of its 2018 BrightSparks Design Engineers of Tomorrow programme, in partnership with RS Components. It celebrates the achievements of young engineers who are already making a difference in the first years of their working life, or who are studying, but showing the promise to become the people behind big future innovations in electronics.

Nicole’s PhD research in The Nanoscience Centre has focused on the initial stages of the development of point-of-care (POC) biosensors based on micro fabricated silicon micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS). According to Nicole, MEMS are the ideal platform for POC sensing systems as they are small, low cost when mass produced, can provide real-time results, and can be easily integrated with electronics to create small, portable systems to analyse human fluid samples such as sweat and saliva.

She has published two journal papers and four international conference papers based on her work, with two further journal papers published on related work. A common challenge with MEMS is that they are typically highly damped when in contact with a fluid, reducing their sensitivity or even rendering them unusable. Her MEMS devices perform better in a water droplet than in air by taking advantage of the acoustic properties of the air-water interface. Nicole overcame another common challenge by designing a biochemical system to specifically detect one type of protein from a mixture without interference from very similar proteins.

Currently, she is researching nanopore biosensors and helping to develop a working, human-sized model of a nano pore biosensor which will be shown at the forthcoming Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition 2018

“I’m trying to develop biosensors to help diagnose people at early stages of different diseases,” said Nicole. “It’s quite an interdisciplinary project in that it combines electronics but also mechanical engineering, biochemistry and biology.”

“I’m very proud and honoured to be named a BrightSparks award winner. I wasn’t expecting it and it was a wonderful surprise,” she added.

Nicole has also taken the lead in creating opportunities for biomedical researchers of different backgrounds to discuss research ideas and share knowledge. She served on the organising committee of the interdisciplinary conference Building Bridges in Medical Sciences. She also initialised and organised the bi-weekly Nanoscience Seminars for the interdisciplinary student researchers at The Nanoscience Centre with the goal of sharing knowledge, starting collaborations, and practising research communication skills.

Outside of work, Nicole has focused on outreach events encouraging girls to consider careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). For example, she has taught coding at Robogals events to encourage girls to learn to code, tutored high school students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds through the Let’s Talk Science programme, and designed and delivered sessions for Women in STEM Access Outreach days at Trinity College and the GSA Girl Power: Women in Biotechnology and Engineering Conference.

Professor Ashwin Seshia, Nicole’s former PhD supervisor, said: “Nicole is an exceptional ambassador for our group, combining research excellence with wider outreach throughout her time at Cambridge. She truly leads by example and I'm delighted that her achievements have been recognised through this award."

This article has been edited from Electronics Weekly's website.

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