Laura O'Keefe, PhD Researcher with Green Tide Turbines

BSc Marine Biology graduate Laura O'Keefe undertook an industry-focused funded PhD with Green Tide Turbines through the Centre for Global Eco-Innovation.

Why did you apply for an industry focused PhD and work with a business?

"I applied for an industry based placement because of the added benefits of working with a company, which would really enhance my CV and future career prospects. Different from a purely academic PhD, working with a company would not only enhance my research skills but also develop my knowledge of the way SME’s work. Not only that but I really liked the idea of applying research to real-world problems and being at the forefront of eco-innovation."

What was the focus of your company project?

"This project aimed to assess the influence of small-scale hydropower on abiotic river conditions and natural biotic communities to inform environmental monitoring strategies and future turbine designs. This information would be drawn upon to help GTT develop ‘environmentally friendly’ turbines, with the aim of achieving ‘type approval’ for deployment in any UK river."

Had you worked with a business before starting your PhD?

"I had volunteered with the company for three months previous to applying for the PhD. During this time I had carried out research into the aquatic impacts of tidal stream and riverine turbines."

Can you describe what it’s like studying at a top global 1% Lancaster University?

"Studying at Lancaster University was a great experience. The academic and support staff were always on hand with great help and support. Even staff members, not actively involved in the project, were always happy to give advice and provide guidance. The facilities and equipment were sophisticated and modern meaning that data collection was, most of the time (weather dependant), a breeze. The campus has all that you need but Lancaster itself is very picturesque and has lots going on."

What did you think of being part of a team of graduate researchers working with businesses on research for new products and processes?

"It was extremely exciting to be working with businesses on research for new products and services. I was fortunate enough to see a product go from an idea to a prototype to a full-scale product. I am so invested in this product that I am planning to continue working with the company for the foreseeable future.

"Having a team of graduate researchers all working with businesses provided me with a great support network. I have made some great friends who were always on hand to provide advice. It was extremely beneficial to have a network of peers/friends who were experiencing the same highs and lows as me. It was nice to get together and chat about our worries and what was going well."

What skills did you use and develop working with the business?

"Working with the company has developed my communication skills and presentation skills. I feel comfortable and confident liaising with not only academics but with managers in other businesses and staff in NGO’s like the Environment Agency. I am happy to present my work to an academic and non-academic audience which is evident from the numerous occasions where I have presented at workshops, seminars and lectures." 

Did you get paid? What expenses did you have and were they paid for by the business?

"The company’s contribution to the project paid for my fees (worth £12,000) and I received a bursary of £16,000 each year for three years. The project also had a decent expenses budget which was available and used to purchase sophisticated measuring equipment and to travel to workshops, seminars and conferences, where I was able to liaise with other companies in a bid to further enhance and develop the product."

What was the best thing you think you did for the business?

  • "In the early stages of the project, working with international commercialisation company Inventya Limited, I wrote a ‘Proof of Market Report’ which was used by GTT to appreciate the depth of the hydropower market.
  • The university helped the company to test a prototype of their product in the tanks in the Engineering Department.
  • Using University equipment Masters Students and I helped with the field testing of a full-scale model of the product."

What was the best thing about doing your PhD for you?

"The best thing about the project for me was using research and applying it to a real-world problem. So much so I am hoping to continue working as a researcher for the company. I really enjoyed the project and I am really excited to start the next step."

What was the result- has it lead to more projects?

"We are hoping to continue our research with an EPSRC grant working with Fern Innovation."

What career do you hope to pursue at the end of your PhD and how do you think it will help you achieve that?

"I am hoping to continue in research at Lancaster University working alongside the company."

What advice would you give to anyone starting an industry-focused PhD like yours? Any top tips?

"There will be lots of highs and lows but the highs out weight the lows. Make sure that you establish a good working relationship with the company and keep in touch regularly. The hardest parts for me were when there was no dialogue between myself and the company.

"Although my project faced setbacks, I am happy that I continued and I would highly recommend an industry-focused PhD. This PhD has provided me with great opportunities for the future and I am excited to see where the products will take us."