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In conversation: donor meets scholar

Alumnus and donor Brian Nicholson returns to campus to meet his newest PhD scholar, Maria Petrou.

Triple alumnus and long-standing supporter of the University, Eur Ing Dr Brian Nicholson KC, began his time at Bath studying electrical and electronic engineering and progressed to PhD study. Brian trained in law and works as a barrister specialising in intellectual property law. He was appointed as Queen’s Counsel (now King’s Counsel) in 2019. Brian has supported scholarships at Bath for more than a decade and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Engineering in 2018.

Maria Petrou completed her master’s in robotics engineering at Bath in 2023 and is now studying for a PhD here thanks to a scholarship supported by Brian. Her research will focus on how ‘soft’ robots can be used in healthcare settings.

Meeting of minds

Brian was keen to discuss research with his PhD scholar, Maria.

A man in a suit sits at a table smiling, in conversation with a female student.

Brian: It’s always fantastic to meet a new scholar. The University liaises with me when they’ve got somebody in mind, and I get told fantastic things about you, how well you’ve been doing as an undergraduate and a bit about your final-year project. But putting a face to a name and a CV is always great.

Maria: It’s the same for me – nice to put a face to the person sponsoring me. It was nerve-wracking because it’s a big moment, but it got me even more excited about the PhD. My research is based on work that I did as an undergrad, where I was working on neural interfaces over a summer placement.

I was trying to use artificial intelligence to map bladder pressure signals coming from the spinal cord. And then in my final-year project I was working with software to control robots. So I’m putting those two areas that I’ve really enjoyed together – trying to use ‘soft’, shape-changing robots and understand how to control them with respect to the body.

Brian: Maria was telling me a little bit about this earlier and, unknown to us both, the research that she picked up and implemented was actually done by one of my previous PhD students who’s still in the Department of Electronic & Electrical Engineering, Dr Jonathan Graham-Harper-Cater. It was more coincidence than design, and I don’t think she was aware of that connection until now!

Enabling academic freedom

With donor support, PhD students can dedicate themselves to their research.

Alumnus and donor Brian Nicholson and PhD scholar, Maria Petrou, outside The Woodlands house.

Brian: One of my deliberate intentions in funding PhDs is that I have no expectations as to what my students spend their time researching, provided they dedicate themselves to their studies and fulfil the degree requirements.

People finding their feet in the research world need to be able to discover something that interests them, a spark that they want to take forward. Part of the problem with modern robotics, for example, is that the programming languages that we’re using aren’t designed in a way that allows robots to be properly expressed.

If you end up finishing your PhD and developing a new style of programming, I’ve got no problem with that – although your supervisor may have other ideas! I really think that freedom is important.

Maria: That was what got me so excited about getting this scholarship in the first place and why I felt so privileged to get it. I’m just keen to see what I find out during the PhD, and hopefully get something out of it at the end that’s genuinely new.

I’ve not really thought too much about what I plan to do afterwards, but I definitely want to stay in research – whether that ends up being through academia or commercial avenues. I’ve really liked the research projects I’ve done so far and I’m really looking forward to the PhD, so I want to keep that up.

Parting wisdom

"This is a time for you to discover how you think, how you research and what you can achieve."

Students crossing the Parade street on the University of Bath campus on a crisp autumn day.

Brian: Make sure you enjoy it. You will never get three years again with the time, energy and lack of distraction to really develop your own intellect.

This truly is a time for you to discover how you think, how you research and what you can achieve. It gives me such pleasure in providing the support for you to be able to do that. Don’t make it a hard slog: it should be the most exciting academic time you’ve had.

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