Greater Manchester is a world-class business destination and the most successful large city for attracting foreign direct investment outside London, across multiple industries.

To get a glimpse into a day in the working life of the city-region’s leading innovators, unique occupations and leading brands, we speak to experts in their fields.

This month we speak to Dr Qian Yang, Royal Society Research Fellow in The University of Manchester’s Advanced Materials team.  

Manchester’s Advanced Materials team focus on solving some of the world’s most critical problems, by developing new and existing materials for the future. As the birthplace of graphene, the revolutionary one-atom thick material, Manchester researchers lead the way on work in this area, through their National Graphene Institute and Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre.


Dr Qian Yang, University of Manchester

When I first wake up, I prepare for the day by...

I know at the moment it’s likely to be raining, but I still check the weather forecast first thing every morning! Maybe that’s because it’s related to my work – as we’ll talk through. Then I head to the gym, to the treadmill mostly, where I listen to my favourite Youtubers Sabine or Veritasium – their broadly scientific topics kept me interested while running.

I’ll get to the office as early as I can. My brain works better in the morning, so I reserve that time for harder, more challenging work – if I’m writing a paper, for example. Then my afternoons are often filled by discussions with colleagues and meetings with my team.

I work at….

Most of the time I’m based in the labs and offices at the Schuster Building off Brunswick Street, part of our Department of Physics and Astronomy, working with graphene and other 2D-materials. For some of my current projects, I also work in the clean rooms at the National Graphene Institute – that’s where we make our devices.

Sometimes it can take weeks to make one device, and shortly after they’re made, you very carefully take them over to the Schuster Building, and start praying that they work!

I’m responsible for...

There are a few things that people associate with Manchester – one might be graphene, but another is definitely the rain!

My work involves both. We’re focussed on a project that’s trying to harness energy from water – such as the water from raindrops – using nanocapillaries made from graphene. We make our nanocapillaries by assembling van der Waals materials together. These nanocapillaries are a Manchester invention, first made nearly a decade ago by Nobel Prize winning Prof Sir Andre Geim, best known for isolating graphene with Professor Sir Konstantin ‘Kostya’ Novoselov. We still lead in nanocapillary research at Manchester, and build many international collaborations around it, so it’s an exciting project to work on – much more to be explored.

We’re not talking about kinetic energy from water here, like that in hydropower station, we’re talking about the unexplored osmotic energy stored in water, or the energy comes from interactions between water and graphene. If we could exploit this energy, it could lead to the development of a brand-new form of renewable energy that could revolutionise sustainable living. 

A typical day looks like...

The team and I often use the National Graphene Institute’s clean rooms, where almost all the devices for our project are made.

These are immersive spaces, and you can easily spend the whole day there without even noticing what time it is! We’re routinely dealing with materials that are a thousand times smaller than the diameter of a human hair, so it’s essential to have the right facilities to be able to see and manipulate them.

Our materials need to be very precisely manipulated by tweezers and microscope, using facilities like atomic force microscopy, and various lithography tools, to pattern graphene and other 2D-materials into desired shape. Because we’re measuring samples with ultra-low electrical noise, so the environment around samples is very important, even a tiny disturbance in the air may induce a noise. So, we carry out all our measurements in an isolated metal box – called Faraday cage, making sure there’s no electrostatic influence from the immediate environment around the sample, not even from people.

The best part of my day is...

That’s an easy one – it’s my daily walk after lunch through the beautiful University Green and nearby green spaces, like Brunswick Park. It’s lovely to see the changing colours, then grab a coffee from a café. I probably should be talking about research, but that walk is my favourite time of the day!

Do you face any challenges and how do you overcome them?

When I don’t know how to solve something, it’s no problem, because there’s a community here to support me.

Part of what attracted me to Manchester in the first place, is our graphene community. We have the National Graphene Institute, we have the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre, not to mention two Nobel prize winners! Twenty years after the initial discovery, we’ve grown into a huge graphene group, across physics, chemistry, chemical engineering, materials – there are probably hundreds of people working on graphene-related topics – so there are lots of people with different expertise that we can collaborate with.

If you’re looking at one problem for a long time alone, you can struggle to work out what’s gone wrong, but when you talk to the community around you, sometimes even a word from them can spark a solution. It’s very inspiring.

What would someone who wants to break into your industry need to know?

The most valuable ability a student can have, is the ability to learn quickly.

You don’t have to have a huge amount of knowledge on our current work, because three years ago, nor did I, but you need to be able to quickly absorb that knowledge. It’s a research project, so most of the time we’re discovering things, and quickly figuring out what to do. Often we’re working with totally new methods, that nobody is an expert in, so you need to be able to learn quickly from scratch. If you can demonstrate that you can learn quickly and independently to solve problems, that will really help you.  
It’s also essential to be collaborative with the people around you, to develop interdisciplinary expertise that may lead to unexpected outcomes. And one last thing – you need an incredibly steady hand!

How do you collaborate with the wider advanced materials eco-system here in Greater Manchester?

We collaborate regularly with colleagues across advanced materials - it’s crucial, we rely on each other to push the forefront of our research. It’s the people, the culture, and the resources here, which make Manchester such a good place to study graphene and other 2D and advanced materials.

We have a lot of international collaborations as well. We need characteristic methods such as advanced microscopy and spectroscopy, and sometimes also theoretical frameworks. These facilities resources and expertise from collaborators can greatly help us in fulfilling our experimental requirements. We also run collaborative projects with researchers from other universities to share our areas of capability. A lot of this is with institutions in Europe; we have collaborations going on in France, Spain, and Germany right now.

Greater Manchester is known as being one of the UK’s most liveable cities – how do you make the most of it?

For me, just by taking a walk in the towns and villages around Manchester, you’ll find some beautiful parks and rural areas. I’m not so keen on shopping centres, but I love exploring Greater Manchester’s greener spaces. They’re full of life - it’s very relaxing, and I love seeing those areas of Britain.


Read more about one of my current research projects, at

And more about my wider research, at