Nesma Al-Shaikhly

Why did you choose to study Electronics and Nanotechnology at Leeds?

When I was searching for potential undergraduate courses, I knew I wanted something science based. I enjoyed particle physics at school, and looking at how molecules behave in chemistry. I was also really interested in understanding how devices like mobile phones and even the internet work. The ‘Electronics and Nanotechnology’ course seemed a good choice for me because it looks at the crossovers of electrical engineering with biology and chemistry at the nanoscale, as well as covering power and communications engineering.

I was aware that Leeds is one of the Red Brick universities and that Electrical Engineering department was among the best for research. I had also heard from students that the union at Leeds was fantastic and now I would definitely agree. They’re really good at encouraging people to join in, and there’s a club for everyone! In my first year, I tried lots of ‘give it a go sessions’ like rifle shooting, caving and gymnastics. On top of that, the university is just a small walk away from the city centre.

What is your favourite part of the course?

The best part of my course is that you get to be taught by real leaders in their fields. We also get access to state-of-the-art equipment and have an exclusive large computer cluster, where each computer has an oscilloscope and signal generator ready to use. In my second year I had the opportunity to work in a clean room where I was suited up and shown how to use photolithography to fabricate a Resonant Tunnelling Diode. It was really great to see how photolithography is actually done, after having learnt about it in first year.

Have you undertaken any project work?

My course is really great at combining classroom work with lots of practical lab sessions. Some of the lab projects I have worked on so far include making a remote control vehicle, creating an iPhone app, designing the hardware and software for a breathalyser and for a calculator.
My favourite of these was probably designing the iPhone app. It was an interactive app for engineering students, which used animations in order to demonstrate the process of photolithography. It was the kind of thing I never imagined I would be able to do before I joined this course.

I’m currently working on a BEng project which involves creating a layer of self-assembling molecules on a gold slide, and trying to making fine patterns in the layer using a laser to cleave the molecules. It works on the principle that with two-photon patterning, a much higher level of precision can be achieved. I’m very excited to see the results.

Have you undertaken any work experience?

Between my second and third year, I did an 8 week internship at the Institute of Microwaves and Photonics, which is a research group at the University of Leeds. My project there involved attaching Gold nanoparticles to DNA scaffolds which I had designed. Using the Atomic Force Microscope (AFM) was especially fun, as I got to see these things that I had created on a nanometre scale.
Working in research labs was a brilliant experience and has taught me a lot about what a career in research would be like. I really enjoy the methodical style of experimentation in a lab. Often, supervisors give you free rein to try out ideas and take projects into the areas that interest you the most.

I had read about using equipment like a PCR machine and an AFM, but it really cemented that knowledge and gave me a much better understanding when I got to actually try these things out for myself.

Did you enjoy your year abroad?

As part of my degree I was able to do an exchange year so I went to the University of California, Santa Barbara. It was an eye-opening year for me, and probably the best year of my life so far! During the Fall and Winter quarters there I worked in a Bio-physics lab. I worked alongside a fourth year Biology student, making DNA nanotubes which we viewed through a microscope, and testing their properties.

How have you found life in Leeds?

Leeds is a really lively city, there’s always something going on. The best part for me is the variety of shops they have! And in Leeds you’re only a 30 minute drive from some really great countryside. When I feel like a bit of a break, I like to go to Ilkley – the area is a great example of beautiful Yorkshire countryside.
This year I decided to join the sign language club at the university, because I just find it fascinating that so much expression can be achieved without the need to speak. It’s been great fun so far and although I’m only a beginner, I hope to improve a lot over the next few months .Like most clubs, the people there are really social and welcoming, and we often all go for a drink at the Terrace on Wednesdays after each session. I also like to stay active, so I go bouldering and sometimes jogging when I have the time.

What are your ambitions for the future?

I’d like to go on to do a PhD where I can apply my engineering skills to a medicine based technology, whether this is in nano-medicine, tissue engineering or another field of biomedical engineering. It’s important to me to have a career where I feel I am helping people.

I think I’ve really developed as a person at Leeds. Each year on my course, we’re expected to do lots of presentations and practical work both individually and in groups. I think that has had the effect of making me more confident in presenting work. I’m really glad that I’ve been given the opportunities to work in research labs, as I feel that this is what I will want to do in the future if I can.

Do you have any advice for prospective students?

Make sure you take hold of all the opportunities that are available; join a club or two and do a summer placement or a year in industry. I wholeheartedly recommend doing an exchange year abroad; not only do you get to experience a different teaching style but you will see a new culture, be pushed out of your comfort zone, and make tonnes of new friends all from different backgrounds.

All these things will really enrich your experience and definitely make you stand out on a CV application. There are so many unique opportunities to experience completely new things at university.