Alex Birtles

Subject area

I chose to study Biomaterials at Loughborough for numerous reasons. To begin with, it is second in the country for Materials Engineering (Guardian University Guide 2021) and has a lot of excellent facilities available. It also contains a lot of topics that I have a high interest in. Further to this, I liked the idea of having everything on a campus and the various opportunities to take part in a diverse range of activities - particularly the sport opportunities caught my eye.

Within the department I had good support with finding a placement. Malcolm, who oversees placements for the department, emails us with placement opportunities when applications became available, and I was advised on which placement websites to use. I was also given the option to get my CV and cover letters checked, as well as doing mock interviews/assessment centres.

I did my placement in Loughborough with a (currently) small company called Interface Polymers Ltd. (IPL). My role was Polymer Process Engineer, and I was part of the technical team carrying out research and development. I got to become an important member of the team as there was only two of us doing my role, so I had the opportunity to contribute my own ideas, and introduced a new test which now gathers important data for them.

My placement was really beneficial. Firstly, I got to experience first-hand what working a 9-5 job is like, and it put me in a good mindset that I have brought back to university to make me a lot more productive.

Alex Birtles

I also did a lot of presenting to the wider team, which really improved my communication skills and confidence. Working to tight schedules and having to plan work well is also a new skill that I got to improve upon, as working in the real-world with customers involved means that you can’t afford long delays.

Operating various machines by myself was also a useful skill to gain. I also got to bring some of my own knowledge to the table to help with development and experiments, or possible explanations to things. It gave me real insight into what working in the materials industry is really like and how a business works. The fact it was paid is always a benefit too!

Throughout the year I had a variety of tasks, and the work I was doing would mainly depend on the most important project at that time, or work for customers or investors. My work was focused on polymer processing. I would do a lot of compounding of polymers with various additives, including IPL’s, to produce polymer blends. Generally, I would then carry out standard tests on the pellets such as capillary rheology/MFI etc. and would also blow films or extrude tapes (injection moulding and sheet extrusion too, but less often). Using these films or tapes I could then gain mechanical test data, such as tensile and tear data, but also optical data too such as haze, clarity and gel numbers. I would then need to analyse the data, plot graphs, find explanations and present this to the wider team, one day per week. Although I spent the majority of my time in the processing labs, I also spent time in the chemistry lab in order to use the rotational rheometers for further testing and analysis. Spending time in this lab gave me the opportunity to understand the chemical side of the subject more too.

To anyone considering studying a placement year, I would say do it! I originally applied for the non-placement year option of the course, and changed my mind in my second year – so don’t worry if you’re not sure yet.

A placement definitely provides massive benefits in terms of work experience, improving work ethic and helping you decide on what you may want to do when you finish university. You may find that you have found the industry for you and what you want to pursue, or it could help rule out that route if you didn’t necessarily enjoy it too much. Plus, leaving university having had a year in industry experience will be a huge bonus for your CV.

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