January 23, 2023, by Postgraduate Placements Nottingham

If you don’t know what a metamaterial is…

Oliver Nelson-Dummett, a PhD researcher in Engineering, on attending his first in-person conference with financial support from the Researcher Academy’s Conferences, Travel and Training Fund.


If you don’t know what a metamaterial is, that’s ok. Neither did I before this conference, and neither – it turns out – do the professors who run the UK Metamaterials Network (UKMMN).

I’m a 2nd year PhD student, studying the 3D printing of electronics using the same technology as a desktop inkjet printer, but with conductive and insulating inks instead of coloured inks. Near the beginning of 2022, my research had turned towards printing metamaterials instead of regular electronic circuits. Broadly speaking, a metamaterial is a material where the fabricated structure of the material gives it some unique property that is not found in the bulk, unstructured material. The best-known example is the shimmering iridescence of a butterfly’s wing, but can include ultra-thin lenses, impossibly strong lattices, and even invisibility cloaks!

I’d heard of such metamaterials in passing, but to dive into the topic I boarded a train headed to St Andrews for the UKMMN’s Summer School of 2022. In particular, I wanted to meet Professor William Whittow from the University of Loughborough, whose work on microwave-frequency antennas made me keen to set up a collaboration. With a stroke of good fortune, I actually met him as I was checking into the accommodation the evening before the conference was due to start and he kindly invited me to join him and one of his postdocs for dinner. It was great to talk to an experienced researcher for such a long time like this, with the conversation going from career advice to the intersections of our research to hashing out potential ideas for a collaboration. We said our goodbyes that evening with the plan to discuss more details at the poster session the next day.

“Networking” doesn’t have to be confined to the conference centre!

And then the conference began. It was very exciting to meet new people face to face (this was my first in-person conference) and discover the wide range of topics other PhD students were studying. As promised, Professor Whittow came by my poster, but many of the key speakers for the event were also walking around with genuine interest (and piercingly insightful questions!).

The rest of the week followed the general formula of presentations by notable academics in the morning, followed by a group activity in the afternoon. Again, the range of topics was enormous, from the quantum physics of metrology to nanofabrication techniques and beyond. One of these talks was a summary of the UKMMN’s previous conference, where there was a multi-hour debate on the definition of a metamaterial (which is still open for discussion). The group project was to pitch an outreach programme of our choosing to a board of academics in the style of a European funding application. This was especially valuable for me, as it was the first time that I had attempted such a proposal.

It was a fully packed week, and by Friday I was exhausted. I had attended every available event, whereas in the future I think I’ll be more selective and focus my attention on the parts that interest me the most. My biggest takeaway from the conference was my introduction to Prof Whittow, but I also improved my ability to network with academic peers face-to-face, wrote a grant proposal for the first time, and gained a much better appreciation for the applications of metamaterials.

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