Working with DRIFT-II Directional Dark Matter Detector located 1.1 km deep at Boulby Underground Laboratory, UK ©

Robert Renz Gregorio

Tell us about yourself — what’s your story and what did you study?

I have just completed my Physics PhD from the University of Sheffield! My project involved working with gas-based directional dark matter experiments located in deep underground laboratories. In the image above, you can see me working on DRIFT-II directional dark matter at the 1.1 km-deep Boulby Underground Laboratory. These detectors are ultra-sensitive and can be triggered by naturally occurring radiation, mainly in the form of radon. My research pioneered the use of molecular sieves to remove radon contamination. 

My academic journey began with a bachelor's degree in chemistry and physics from the University of Sheffield, where I was awarded an undergraduate scholarship for my academic excellence. I discovered the potential application of molecular sieves to remove radon contamination during my master’s project, which resulted in a first-author publication as an undergraduate and a full scholarship for a Physics PhD. 

My work has extensive ties to industry, particularly radon research with DURRIDGE UK. My expertise in radon has led me to be named a co-inventor for a novel method and apparatus to measure radon using conductivity. This invention has the potential to make the measurement of cancer-causing radon in residential environments faster and less expensive. I hope to apply my knowledge of radon to applications relevant to the Philippines, such as environmental tracers for groundwater and geothermal energy and as an earthquake precursor. 

Why did you choose the UK and the University of Sheffield in particular as a study destination? 

The University of Sheffield is part of the 24 Russell Group public research universities in the UK that are committed to maintaining the highest standards in research, education, and innovation. In fact, in 2021 the Times Higher Education REF (Research Excellence Framework) ranked Physics at Sheffield as number one in the UK. During my time with the dark matter research group, there was a strong emphasis on international collaboration, which allowed me to work with a variety of experiments, including NEWAGE in Japan and CYGNO in Italy. Moreover, it provided opportunities to present at numerous conferences, including TPC in Paris, IOP in Edinburgh, and IDM in Vienna (as shown in the image below). 

What drew you to Physics? 

What fascinates me about Physics is the way it provides elegant mathematical models to describe complex phenomena. From the smallest subatomic particles to the largest structures in the universe, Physics has the power to explain the workings of the world around us. Even though physics is a fundamental science, it also provides many transferable skills necessary for a successful career in industry. 

You’re very active in the local Filipino community – taking part in initiatives such as the Young Generation Academic Support and co-founding the Filipino Society at the University of Sheffield. What drives you to give back to the community?  

It's important to stay connected with your Filipino heritage while studying and living abroad. This can include participating in Filipino cultural events and organisations or cooking Filipino food. Although there are numerous cultural societies at the University of Sheffield, there was not a Filipino society when I first arrived. It was important for me to work towards establishing one to promote the diversity and inclusivity of Filipinos. More importantly, it provides Filipino students with a source of comfort and strength during times of homesickness or culture shock. The University of Sheffield Filipino Society has been active for nearly a decade, during this time it has organised events promoting Filipino traditions including Christmas parole making, boodle fights, and tinikling dancing. 

The lack of representation of Filipinos and BAME students discouraged me from pursuing a postgraduate degree in Physics, helping me to recognise the significance of BAME representation in STEM. To address this problem, I have made it my mission to encourage Filipino participation in advanced STEM programmes through initiatives such as FILIPINO UNITE group, where I act as the Young Generation Academic Support. 

What has been the most exciting part of your experience studying and living in the UK? 

Studying in Sheffield has been incredibly exciting, from experiencing new cultures to meeting new people and gaining new knowledge. However, being captain of the University of Sheffield Boxing Club has been the most enjoyable and rewarding experience. During my time as captain, we attracted a record number of members (200+) and raised over £2,000 for the Sheffield Children's Hospital and Support Dogs UK. In addition, we successfully coordinated with Sport Sheffield, Hallam University, and Sheffield City Boxing Club to deliver a sold-out boxing show with a thousand spectators (VARSITY 2022). The prestigious "Black and Gold" award was given to me by Sport Sheffield in recognition of my contributions to the boxing club. 

You have been shortlisted to the PhD Student of the Year in the UK in 2022. Tell us about that experience. 

I received an email informing me that I had been nominated for the award due to my academic achievements and contribution to the postgraduate community within the university and wider society. It was already an honour for me to be recognised and nominated but being chosen as one of the top 6 PhD students in the UK was a surreal experience. Being ranked among the top 6 students in the UK, all of whom have amazing success stories, is something I will always be proud of. 

What advice would you give to Filipinos who aspire to pursue an advanced degree in STEM in the UK?   

Network with other Filipinos. There may be other Filipinos studying or working in your field of interest in the UK who can provide support and advice. You can network by finding them on LinkedIn or sending a direct message to Filipino society at your university of choice. You can also find contacts through initiatives such as British Council Philippines and Pinoy Scientists. 

Presenting at the Identification of Dark Matter International Conference 2022 in Vienna, Austria ©

Robert Renz Gregorio

Filipino Society stall at the University of Sheffield activities fair ©

Robert Renz Gregorio

Robert Renz Gregorio receiving the prestigious Black and Gold award from Sports Sheffield. ©

Robert Renz Gregorio