Dr Francisca Martínez Hergueta joined IMDEA Materials in 2011 where she completed her PhD in Engineering for Structures, Foundations and Materials supervised by Dr Carlos Gonzalez and Prof Javier Llorca. She presented her thesis entitled “Multiscale Analysis of the Mechanical Behaviour of Needle-Punched Nonwoven Fabrics” in 2016, obtaining the qualification outstanding with mention cum laude and international mention. Afterwards, she spent two years as a post-doctorate researcher at the University of Oxford before taking on her current role as Lecturer in Impulsive Dynamics at the University of Edinburgh School of Engineering.
Hello Francisca and thank you for taking the time to talk with us today! First of all, you were at IMDEA Materials for five years from 2011-2015, can you tell us a little about your experience here?
I was hired by Dr Carlos Gonzalez to work on projects sponsored by Airbus, mainly consultancy for R&D, and we spent several years developing fuselage protections for ballistic impacts. However, after two years in that role, I received an FPU, which is a scholarship funded by the Ministry of Education to train future academics. That changed slightly the focus of my work and I began to dedicate more time to basic research rather than applied R&D. In total, I spent two of my five years at IMDEA Materials in R&D and three years in fundamental research and I’ve got the feeling that gave me the right set of hard and soft skills to work in UK academia. Here, it’s obviously important to develop quality research, but you also need to know how to engage with companies and how to deliver for them.
During your time at IMDEA Materials you worked closely with Dr Gonzalez. Seven years later and your most recent paper was published in conjunction with him and also with Professor Javier Llorca. It seems you’ve kept in close contact with your former IMDEA colleagues?
Absolutely, I still continue to work with them. They are my mentors and even though it’s been quite a few years, they are still helping me a lot. Any time that I have a big proposal coming up, they are always happy to review it and give me the support that I need, so I’m very grateful for that. The people that I worked with at IMDEA, we weren’t just great colleagues, we’ve
become great friends which I think is quite special and quite rare.
You are currently working as a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Engineering. How does that compare with working as a researcher here at IMDEA Materials?
My current position in the UK doesn’t really have an equivalent in Spain. My time at IMDEA was dedicated almost 100% to research. If you’re working at a university in Spain, it’s almost 100% teaching, unless you want to do some research on the side. As an academic in the UK, however, it’s about 40% teaching, 40% research, and 20% admin work. So, it’s a real mix. What I am always trying to do is to find the right balance. My passion right now is young people. I love working with my PhD students and my undergrads and teaching them what it’s like to do great research, and also, how to engage with companies and with the industry.
Getting into a bit more detail about your role as a researcher, tell us a little about your current line of investigation.
My research line is in the development of novel composite materials with improved impact performance. Some of the techniques that we are using to achieve this are Automated Fibre Placement (AFP) and 3D printing. We are also looking at
low-cost composites for the automotive industry. For that, we have to be very resourceful as we’re looking for the cheapest composites possible. As such, we are using things you wouldn’t normally expect like pellets or even recycled scraps to try to understand their mechanical properties and find the most cost-effective options. The automotive sector doesn’t have the same kind of resources to dedicate to R&D as the aerospace sector, so unless we can produce composites which are cost-effective compared to their traditional metal alternatives, composites are not going to be a viable option. This is especially important in the next generation of electric vehicles as one of the biggest problems facing these vehicles is that the batteries they use are
extremely heavy. What that means is that we need to try to reduce the weight of the rest of the components to bring the overall weight of the vehicle down and that’s one of our main goals.
Without a doubt, one of the most fascinating projects you are also currently involved in through the University of Edinburgh is with the Endeavour Rocketry team.
My work with Endeavour is basically as an academic advisor for students who are manufacturing rockets and then competing at British and international-level competitions. A lot of my work in this role relates to admin tasks and health and safety paperwork but I also give advice on hardware. My expertise is in materials and mechanical systems so I review their designs, and help out when it comes to design and testing. We actually won a UK competition last year for a satellite the size of a can which was used to measure CO2 emissions over cow fields.
What advice would you give to someone considering doing a PhD or taking on a postdoctoral position at IMDEA Materials?
To give a bit of context to my answer here, before my time at IMDEA I was working in an aerospace consultancy and it was just so boring! I had the feeling that a monkey could have done my job. At the time, I felt I was still too young to be in such an uninspiring position. Being at IMDEA Materials was honestly the complete opposite of that. If you have the feeling that you want to do more, to challenge yourself, and to have fun as well, then it’s a great place to be. I also think that doing a PhD in general is a great way to improve your career prospects because it gives you a unique set of abilities. You need to be
resourceful, you need to be patient and also focused. The three-four years spent doing a PhD definitely give you those skills.
Finally, what’s something you’d like to add to our interview that we haven’t covered?
I think for me, one thing I would just really like to highlight is how grateful I am to Carlos Gonzalez and also Claudio (Dr Claudio S. Lopes) for the amazing environment they created at IMDEA Materials. If PhD students are not given the right environment to work in, they tend to become quite competitive and that’s a formula for disaster. Studies have shown that one-third of PhD students and also many academics suffer from mental health issues. During my time at IMDEA, Carlos managed to get everything right and create a really healthy environment for researchers and I think that should be a priority at any academic or