Dr. Duncan Casey’s work is about getting results.
“There’s always a place for curiosity-driven research, but I don’t do much of that,” he said. “I want to see a problem get solved. I want to hold something.”
As Industry Fellow in the Bristol Centre for Functional Nanomaterials (BCFN) and a visiting lecturer at Imperial College London, Duncan connects industry to academia – listening to the challenges facing the former and identifying solutions in the research of the latter. “From this year’s cohort alone, we have about a half dozen industry-backed students working on commercially centered problems,” Duncan said. “In every case you will end up with something you can see.”
That might mean prosthetics for Paralympians, or sprayable Polyfilla for people with extreme skin conditions. “We’re looking to develop that for trauma use in road accidents, IED injuries,” Duncan explained. “It sets like rubber at body temperature – if you’re bleeding out, suddenly you aren’t.”
With dozens of projects at the forefront of research and each project straddling several disciplines, it’s crucial to make sure everyone has the relevant information. To do that, Duncan uses Mendeley, Elsevier’s reference management software and researcher network.
Duncan said Mendeley has been a must-have for national collaborations.
“I’ve been in situations where I’m managing 40-something people across three sites,” he said. “Mendeley was critical for that”. During his time at Imperial College, Duncan worked as a partner to Mendeley, and his feedback – among others – helped shape the way the product is today.
If you have 30 or 40 people dumping their notes into a repository, it’s no better than Google. What you need is some way to break down information into categories, discuss notes and ideas, so that you can flick through and browse.
That requirement became Mendeley Groups, which allow members to curate and share reading lists. “That was invaluable,” Duncan said. “In the Institute for Chemical Biology at Imperial, we had about 80 academics working together. If someone new joined, we could drop all the literature into their inbox: Here’s the essential reading list, here’s the recommended list, here’s the cutting-edge stuff – all in different subdirectories.”
In that way, information from many different publishers can be shared across sites without overloading everyone’s inbox with hundreds of PDFs or requiring researchers to log in to several different sites. “Mendeley is a tremendous facilitator,” Duncan said. “It gives you the chance to have live conversations about an article with the annotations in front of you, and you know that everyone is working from the same, final version of the article.”
The process of literature review is now built into the program at the BCFN. “Before anyone touches anything, they develop a comprehensive literature report on the state of the art in the field,” said Duncan.
The alternative would simply be to reinvent the wheel over and over again. “You may have heard the old adage that six months in the lab can easily save you a couple of hours in the library,” he said. “Keeping on top of the research means you don’t make all the mistakes that others have made. You have some idea of where the cutting edge is.”
One of Duncan’s tasks is to help researchers succeed in a commercial environment. After all, he pointed out, for every 100 PhDs who train, there are just one-and-a-half professorships – so understanding the private sector is key.
“There are lots of ways to do something practical and useful in science – it’s not always about writing an article that may not ever get read,” he said. “For some people, science in a commercial setting is going to be more rewarding. If you’re in a company of 50 people, your contribution can be an absolute game-changer. That’s what people see with those industry backed projects.”
Getting there isn’t always easy. Early in their first year, the students Duncan works with will have to pull together a market research report and business plan and then pitch it to a panel of venture capitalists. “They offer a … different intensity of feedback to what students may be used to,” Duncan explained.
It’s a path Duncan has taken himself, having started his own tech company when he was a PhD student. “Not the smartest move,” he conceded. “It meant I didn’t sleep for about eight years. But now it means I can help others navigate the bumps in the road.”
And as ever, for Duncan the reward is in the results. “We get to work with ridiculously high quality students,” he said. “One thing those of us on the recruitment panel this year agreed on was that none of us would have been good enough to make it on to our own training program. That was a humbling moment.”
In connecting researchers with industry, instilling a strong sense of commercial acumen and ensuring they understand how best to operate at the cutting edge of their discipline, Duncan has seen his students do remarkable things. “I’ve helped half a dozen student start ups get going, and some are doing quite well,” he said. “One, who started a company called FreshCheck made the Forbes 30 under 30 this year.
“Damn, I never managed that!”