Skip to main content

Dr Katie Shanks

We have been catching up with our very first PhD students and Postdoctoral researchers to see what has happened since they joined us a decade ago. Here you can read about their reflections of working at the ESI, information about what they are doing now and we look ahead to their future plans. More conversations to be added soon!


What were you working on when you first joined the ESI?

When I first arrived at the Environment and Sustainability Institute (ESI) to start my PhD in solar energy, it was within its first 2 years of opening and there was only a small cohort of us stretched across the various disciplines. My PhD was focused on new types of solar concentrator technology. These are basically systems that combine optics and solar panel materials to obtain higher efficiency systems and minimise the increasing demand for the solar cell rare materials required. Professor Tapas Mallick was my supervisor and he encouraged ideas collaborations and funding applications. In one of my first-year presentations, I was recommended to talk with Professor Richard ffrench-Constant (from Biosciences), on his butterfly research as one of their species might have been concentrating light similar to the technology I was describing. This led me into the exciting interdisciplinary research of adapting natures optics for solar concentrator designs. I successfully passed my PhD thesis titled “Identification and Development of Novel Optics for Concentrator Photovoltaic Applications” in early 2018 with 6 first author journal papers, 6 conference articles and 1 book chapter.

What was your proudest achievement?

My proudest moment so far is being chosen not only for an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Research Fellowship, but to have the distinction of being an EPSRC’s David Clarke Research Fellow. I am now able to lead my own research into bio-inspired optics for solar concentrator technologies, in the challenging attempt to make solar energy more efficient, compact and integrated into everyday structures and smart technologies. This has filled me with confidence and excitement for all the future research I can now start, especially in leading others into novel interdisciplinary topics to answer the most demanding questions. I’ve had great experiences collaborating with others, inside and outside my discipline, and this Fellowship allows me the flexibility to investigate high potential routes where I see fit and begin building my own interdisciplinary research group.

What happened next – where did you go?

After my PhD, I continued at the ESI as a postdoctoral researcher for Professor Tapas Mallick. There were two research projects I helped research and manage. The first of these projects was the joint UK-China project on Embedded Systems for Integrated Photovoltaics Systems for Buildings, funded by Innovate UK. This project engaged 3 universities and 5 companies from China and the UK to investigate, validate and streamline the manufacturing of photovoltaic windows for building integration. This led to some great ongoing links and collaborations, which are now being utilised in my Fellowship. The second project was the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) project ‘Energy Independent Farming’ aimed to optimise the renewable energy on farm sites for sustainable, low operational cost farming. This was led by the start-up company Bennamann who are continuing to grow and develop a circular economy for the southwest of UK, with farms and renewable energy at its core. I learned a great deal from both projects, and that enabled me to put a project proposal forward for my Fellowship, which started in January 2021. I have also been awarded a proleptic lectureship role at the University of Exeter, which begins at the end of my Fellowship in 2025.

What was the most useful lesson you learned at the ESI?

The ESI’s diverse and open research community provides an exposure to other areas of research that first made me want to do interdisciplinary work. In my opinion, the ESI makes interdisciplinary research possible, by simply making other research more visible and accessible to all disciplines, in an informal and encouraging environment. This increases chances of having the right conversation with the right people on the most impactful topics. The most useful lesson I learned, is that there is more than one way to do research. Not only are there different methods, technologies, materials and applications, but there are different styles of researchers. I have seen the eccentric researchers with endless ideas, the diplomatic researchers steering large teams, the top-down, goal orientated researchers, the bottom-up resource planners and the people-focused researchers who will go out of their way to help you, even at short notice. These inspiring role models from different disciplines and different parts of the world, will determine the kind of researcher I aim to be.

What collaborations do you have with others?

I have ongoing collaborations with Professor Richard Constant (Biosciences) and Dr Saptarshi Das (Mathematics) at the University of Exeter. I also work closely with Art and Energy, led by Chloe Udon and the newly started Upcycled Glass Company led by glass crafter, Ian Hankey. I spent 3 months in India working with Professor Reddy from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras and 2 months working with Dr Eduardo Fernandez from the University of Jaen in Spain during my PhD. I was also awarded funding to visit and initiate collaborations with Professor Robert Taylor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, who I now continue to collaborate with as part of my Fellowship along with Eduardo and multiple company partners who I met through my post-doctoral projects. Currently I work closely with Kernow Coatings, which is based near the Penryn campus and I am actively pursuing new collaborations in America and Germany.

What will the ESI be like in another decade – what will we be working on then?

The ESI building, is and always will be, “too small.” I think the ESI will continue to expand, and I hope that means there will be more buildings and more researchers or possibly more branching institutes (physical and virtual) that create space for focused interdisciplinary teams. Eventually I hope this also leads to more impactful taught courses, to help develop the next generation of students focused on sustainability, which ultimately needs to encompass all disciplines if it is to be done correctly. As the UK’s 2050 net zero target looms closer, I imagine activities that help achieve this target are going to be encouraged. I’d also like to see more hosting and desk sharing with local companies and everyday professionals for direct impacts. I suspect there would have to be a clever rota system, which in the past was expertly managed by Mark Plummer (who has now moved on to a more senior role within the University). Mostly, I hope I’m there to have a part in making this happen.