Leen is in her first year of PhD Electrical & Electronic Engineering (2023) study. Her scholarship is supported by alumnus Eur Ing Dr Brian Nicholson QC, honorary graduate Tony Best and the Esther Parkin Trust. We caught up with her at the recent Scholarship Reception at the Guildhall, which celebrated our first-year scholars, donors and partners.
What was it like to speak on stage at the Scholarship Reception in front of 200 guests?
I was quite stressed about it, but it was great! I think it such an honour to be chosen to share my journey with the Scholars. I hope that they were encouraged to make the most out of the opportunities available to them – the one piece of advice repeated by all of the speakers. I also enjoyed meeting new people who were interested in my work with Bath STAR and WESBath.
What does being a scholarship recipient mean to you?
Being able to chat with one of my donors, Eur Ing Dr Brian Nicholson QC, has been great because he has lots of experience, especially in intellectual property. It's something I’m really interested in, as I’m hoping to start a company one day. He was on campus recently giving a talk, and we were able to have lunch together.
Obviously the money really helps, as well; it definitely frees me up to concentrate on my research. Last semester, I did lots of lab demonstrations, which took a lot of time. I was able to cut down on that this semester without worrying about losing that extra income. It also means I can spend time volunteering and giving back to the community. I absolutely love taking part in outreach activities with the Student Women's Engineering Society to share my passion for engineering.
What does your PhD research involve?
The main idea is to enable amputees to feel again. Currently, if a person loses their arm or hand, they get a prosthetic one. These could be robotic or passive but, in both cases, they don’t really have much sensory feedback – so when somebody wants to hold a piece of fruit or a cup, they don’t know how much pressure they’re applying.
There’s lots of research on providing that feedback through invasive stimulation of the nerves to elicit referred sensation. This is where electrodes are implanted around the nerves in the arm to send signals that make the person ‘feel’ through the arm.
What I’m hoping is to do this non-invasively, by placing the electrodes around the arm and using signals to target specific nerves.
What would you most like to achieve during your studies?
If I can get my idea to work, that would be amazing, but I think if I’m able to come up with something that’s good enough to be commercialised and open a company, that would be my dream. Thanks to the University encouraging commercialisation for researchers, we’ve had lots of training on this through the doctoral college.
Name one thing that makes you feel proud to be a part of the University of Bath community.
The community feel at the University is definitely something I really like, and is the reason I stayed here after my undergraduate degree. It’s just comfortable and it feels like home. I also love Bath’s outreach work, being part of volunteering teams and helping the community.
What’s the one thing you know now that you wish you’d known when you started university?
Probably to be braver and just talk to people! I’ve always known that’s a good thing, but in the back of my mind it was always, ‘Oh, nobody wants to talk to me; I’m still a fresher’ – that kind of thinking. Now I’m like, ‘Just go and talk to them!’
What are your interests outside of your studies?
Bath STAR (Student Action for Refugees) started a weekly homework club this academic year, based in town, where we have volunteering students to help refugee kids with their homework. We do it in collaboration with Bath Welcomes Refugees, a local charity. We’ve also been trying to help them with their Arabic, if they’re slightly losing their language. In the first week we had one student show up; now most of the refugee kids in the local area come along!
I’ve been a part of the Student Women's Engineering Society since my first year, as well, and I was chair for two years as an undergraduate. Last year, for International Women in Engineering Day, we brought together engineers from the University and the local area for a mini conference. We had speakers, a workshop and the chance to network. Recently, someone who was planning a paid conference saw the event and said they couldn’t believe it was free, given how organised it was!
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I originally wanted to be a maths teacher, but then when I was about 13 I saw a video of an amputee trying on a prosthetic lower limb and I saw how happy they were. Since then, being an engineer has been my dream.
After my undergraduate placement I got an offer for a graduate role and nearly accepted it, but then my supervisor suggested a PhD and I thought, ‘That’s amazing; I can do what I’ve always wanted to!’
When are you happiest?
I love when I get towards the end of outreach activities and a girl comes up to me and says she wants to be an engineer. That really makes me happy. I’ll never forget one activity where the girls called their team ‘Women Can Do Anything’ – yes, you can!
Which one superpower would you like to possess?
To read people’s minds. Firstly, because I’m always worried about annoying people without knowing, so it would be good to get immediate feedback! But also sometimes I feel like people don’t always speak up in meetings. They might be being quiet but they have great ideas, and if you could read their minds you could encourage them to say it.