The ThinkLab Experience – Dante McGrath

30 June 2021

By Tyler Shores


As students at the University of Cambridge, stepping outside our usual confines (be it the lab, the library, or the living room) to apply ourselves to problems outside our research can enrich our career potential. ThinkLab provided that very avenue for me and fourteen other doctoral researchers.

ThinkLab, as part of the University’s Strategic Partnerships Office, is a programme that brings together Cambridge research students from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines to solve a real-world problem posed by an external organisation. For students such as myself, ThinkLab represented a unique opportunity to make a direct social impact on a real-world problem using the skills developed throughout the course of a PhD.

The most recently completed ThinkLab project centred on the design of a neurodiverse employability scheme for a data science internship with Aviva, one of the University’s partner organisations. Aviva is a multinational insurance company and member of the FTSE 100 Index. With growing awareness towards equality and diversity in society, it has become imperative for companies such as Aviva to foster a neuroinclusive workplace culture. Moreover, various business experts have argued for a number of years that cultivating a neurodiverse workforce is a competitive advantage; Aviva’s partnership with the University signals its endeavour to become an industry pioneer in this regard.

From the outset, the programme demanded adaptability and agility of its participants. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, all meetings were held online. This created a challenging dynamic, impacting interactions between all stakeholders: the organisers (Tyler Shores and Dr. Catherine Hasted), teams, mentors, and clients. Another challenge, embedded within the very nature of ThinkLab, was to transform a quite abstract brief into concrete deliverables. In effect, this approach treated the project goals as organic entities, coming into sharper relief as the project developed. This is consistent with Formative Intervention theory, a pillar of the ThinkLab model focussing on the principles of expansive learning (ascending from the abstract to the concrete) and transformative agency (transforming practices amidst changing circumstances). In doing so, ThinkLab exemplifies the value of an active partnership between academia and business, reframing best practice in both domains. From an insider’s perspective, I found this approach both exciting and nerve-racking – akin to laying tracks for a hurtling train!

“ThinkLab represented a unique opportunity to make a direct social impact on a real-world problem using the skills developed throughout the course of a PhD.”

We were fortunate to receive mentoring from leading experts in neurodiversity, such as Prof. Amanda Kirby and Dr. Temple Grandin, a global spokesperson in the field of autism. Within the teams, this period featured group brainstorming and data collection to explore best practice principles in neuroinclusive workplaces. This included regular meetings with various Aviva decisionmakers and employees that would facilitate the internship, as well as calls to other stakeholders, such as the University’s Careers Service and Auticon, the multinational IT consultancy that exclusively employs adults on the autism spectrum. These interactions were beneficial not only for the programme, but also for encouraging us to engage with people outside the bubble of academia, bridging the gap between academic research and implementation in real-world contexts.

We entered the ‘storming’ phase towards the midway point of the programme. With close discussion and collaboration with our Aviva partners, it became apparent that the information compiled by the three teams overlapped considerably. This forced us to think critically about our respective contributions to the brief. The ThinkLab model emphasises flexibility and midway through, we chose to re-organise the teams under an updated scope; this allowed the unique expertise of our Cambridge team to really come together in the best possible ways. A crucial part of the ThinkLab approach was a commitment to co-creation: we sought input from neurodiverse individuals to help us understand the kinds of unique challenges in their work and blind spots we might have missed on our own. The scope defined by our Cambridge and Aviva teams was based on key actions to facilitate the new neurodiversity internship programme: recruiting neurodiverse individuals, supporting neurodiverse individuals, and educating colleagues of neurodiverse individuals. This pivot equipped us with clear objectives, enabling us to shift from divergent brainstorming to convergent problem solving; in turn, Aviva were able to better understand how our recommendations could be enacted in practice.

Change of any kind in a large organisation is challenging and complex, and often requires input from many stakeholders. As part of this project, we adopted a responsive approach that carefully balanced input and challenges from Aviva stakeholders along with information we had unearthed during the ThinkLab process. The programme culminated in a discussion of our findings with partners and directors of Aviva’s global data science practice, Aviva Quantum. This was a rewarding experience in presenting our research to the very people that would put our recommendations to fruition.

Overall, I gained a great deal from my experience with ThinkLab. The coronavirus pandemic put paid to in-person networking – the lifeblood of the Cambridge experience. In its absence, ThinkLab cultivated the synergy of working with fellow researchers from diverse backgrounds and disciplines, from which we all learned about the impact of unexpected connections and knowledge sharing.

Dante McGrath is a PhD student at the Department of Engineering investigating two-phase reacting flows in the field of combustion. His experiments aim to examine phenomena underpinning spray flames using laser diagnostics. This work has crucial implications with respect to optimising the combustion process of technologies prone to pollutant emissions, such as the gas turbine engine. You can connect with him on LinkedIn (