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The University of Southampton

Pioneering ‘buckyball’ research scoops Three Minute Thesis prize

Published: 11 June 2019
Gabriela and Jenny accept award
Gabriela and Jenny accept their People’s Choice Awards

Postgraduate research student Gabriela Sitinova shared an insightful synopsis into a new form of molecular surgery to win the Southampton Three Minute Thesis (3MT®) Grand Final.

The School of Chemistry researcher impressed with her three-minute PhD presentation in front of a packed lecture theatre to become only the sixth University 3MT Champion.

Gabriela also tied an audience vote to share the event’s People’s Choice Award with environmental engineering researcher Jenny Walker and her technique for using machine learning to segment images of the seafloor.

The 3MT Grand Final, part of the University Doctoral College’s three-week Festival of Doctoral Research, is one of many such competitions held worldwide. Gabriela will now move further into the National Competition run by Vitae.

“This competition has helped me realise how much I love what I’m doing and I’m thrilled that the judges and audience have appreciated it,” Gabriela says. “It’s a really fun process to think how to communicate your research in a way that is understandable and interesting to a non-scientific audience and the whole competition has helped me overcome my fear of talking in front of people.”

The 3MT success completed a profitable week for Gabriela in which she also gained a second place poster prize in a Doctoral Research Showcase.

Gabriela’s novel research is exploring new methods of inserting and studying atoms within a spherical Buckminsterfullerene molecule, or ‘buckyball’. These endohedral fullerenes contain phenomenal quantum properties that are studied by Southampton’s Magnetic Resonance (MagRes@Soton) Group.

“We have so far optimised our methods of known compounds and recently published novel fullerene CH4@C60, which is the largest molecule placed inside to date,” Gabriela says. “I hope that desired molecules will soon be produced on a large scale thanks to our methods and that their properties will be utilised in cancer diagnosis and novel superconducting materials.”

People’s Choice Award co-recipient Jenny Walker is a Leverhulme Trust Doctoral Scholar within Southampton Marine and Maritime Institute.

“I'm amazed to have made it this far and so flattered that I was one of the audience's favourites,” Jenny says. “It's really reassuring, at the halfway mark through my PhD, to have such strong public support for the work that I'm doing. This competition has really boosted my confidence and motivation for scientific outreach - an area I've always been interested in.”

Jenny’s research is combining applying deep learning to deep seas, with a view to eventually extracting data such as estimated biomass and biodiversity indexes from the images.

Her passion for ocean-based research was also recognised with a Student Poster Competition prize at last month’s International Symposium on Underwater Technology in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

“The oceans contain a huge portion of life on earth and their health is a key indicator to the health of the global ecosystem,” Jenny explains. “There's a serious lack of research into how to adapt deep learning systems, developed for big data problems with thousands of labelled data points, to the smaller, specific problem domain of deep sea imagery. I hope my research will provide a springboard for many researchers after me into this vastly unknown field.”

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