Ten student members passed their PhD in 2020

We are thrilled to share that this year, despite its difficulties, 10 research students associated with the TRANSNET Programme successfully defended their theses this year, including three viva exams passed in December alone! Find out what everyone is doing now as we look back at this incredible achievement below.

This blog is part of a series highlighting the thoughts, experiences and achievements of our student researchers during a hugely challenging and uncertain year.

January

Paris Andreades, from the Optical Networks Group at UCL, was the first of our 2020 graduating students to pass his viva, only weeks before Covid-19 reached the UK. Since this was a time before social distancing, Paris was able to celebrate his success with friends and fellow PhD students at a local pub, along with his supervisor (TRANSNET Co-I) Dr George Zervas, his examiners and head of ONG and TRANSNET PI Professor Polina Bayvel. Paris is now leading the electronics engineering team at ORCA Computing

A memorable moment from PhD life for Paris was finding out that his first paper was accepted for presentation at one of the biggest conferences on optical communication: “It was only a few weeks into my PhD when my supervisor and I decided to submit a paper. When I received the acceptance notice for that paper, it was the best moment of my PhD life – the whole experience felt truly rewarding, given the effort that has gone into producing that research work.”

Paris Hui Josh in pubFebruary

At the start of February, another member of the Optical Networks Group at UCL, Hui Yuan, successfully defended his thesis, which happened in person and was followed by celebratory drinks at a local pub. Hui joined the team after finishing the first year of his PhD at Bristol, although this wasn’t his most challenging time:

A difficult time for me was working on a rebuttal letter for the Journal of Lightwave Technology. We made a lot of effort on revising the paper but unfortunately it was finally rejected. We still believe it’s good work." 

Hui is now a working as a senior engineer at Huawei in Beijing.

At the end of February, Joshua Benjamin (also from UCL's Optical Networks Group) was the first of our 2020 graduating students to inadvertently experience a virtual viva after his external examiner decided, rather sensibly, not to travel to the UK after becoming unwell with flu-like symptoms a few days before the exam was due to take place. Post-viva, Joshua went out for drinks with colleagues, and then flew to San Diego for the Optical Networking and Communication Conference in early March, returning to the UK right before we entered a national lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Joshua remains with ONG, and is now post-doctoral researcher working under TRANSNET Co-I Dr Georgios Zervas.

April

Anastasiia Vasylchenkova completed her PhD at the Aston Institute of Photonic Technologies under the supervision of TRANSNET Co-I Professor Sergei Turitsyn. Lockdown restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic meant that Anastasiia’s viva was the first amongst our 2020 graduating students to intentionally go virtual, the organisation of which didn’t always go to plan, as she describes in this Q+A along with her favourite moments from PhD life. Anastasiia is now an associated research fellow of the TRANSNET Programme. After being awarded a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship, she moved from our Aston site to join the Optical Networks Group at UCL in October.

May 

Daniel Semrau, from the Optical Networks Group at UCL, also defended his thesis virtually via Zoom, and although a little disappointed not to be examined fact-to-face, Daniel was able to celebrate with friends and several beers in Berlin. Throughout his PhD, Daniel enjoyed travelling to and attending conferences with colleagues the most: “I loved the atmosphere, the community stories, the drama and catching up with old friends and ex colleagues over some beers." Daniel is now at Infinera, but stayed with the TRANSNET Programme as a research associate throughout the summer months.

Eric Sillekens (a member of UCL’s Optical Networks Group) – our sixth doctoral graduate of 2020 – would have loved to experience an in-person viva complete with lunch, dinner and drinks, but unfortunately defending one's thesis online was now firmly part of the 'new normal' as a result of Covid-19 restrictions. Throughout his PhD, Eric valued his colleagues the most: “In our group, it feels like you’re surrounded by the smartest people, always willing to help, in an environment where everyone improves and has the greatest time in the process – you feel you can stay at your sharpest." Eric remains at UCL as a postdoctoral researcher for the TRANSNET Programme.

September

Fast-forward to September, when Xianhe Yangzhang from the Optical Networks Group at UCL, successfully defended his PhD thesis before moving to Beijing to join Huawei’s Research and Development team. Xianhe’s top tip for an online viva is to: "Dress up to show respect and boost your confidence, which is great for a remote viva because you can wear pajama pants, and nobody will know!"

Boris VivaDecember

And finally, to December. Our most successful month with three TRANSNET associated research students completing their PhDs.

Boris Karanov, trained for his PhD as a member of the Optical Networks Group at UCL, and is now working with TRANSNET friends and collaborators at the Technical University of Eindhoven as a post-doctoral researcher. One of the most challenging moments for Boris during his PhD was his industrial secondment at Bell Labs because: "It was hard to find the balance between academic and industrial environments, and it involved changing countries every year."

Tom Gerard and Kari Clark, members of UCL’s Optical Networks Group, both had their viva examinations during the final week of term before the Christmas break – what a wonderful way to end the year! In extended pieces for our blog series on student success, Kari recounts the highs and lows of his PhD, and Tom reflects on a daunting experience early into his PhD which left him feeling daunted and bewildered about what lay ahead…


We are extremely proud to see our student researchers succeed. Ten graduating students in 2020 is an absolute triumph especially considering the adversity of 2020. Well done and congratulations to all from the entire TRANSNET Programme.