Favourite Thing: Travelling to huge labs around the world and meeting lots interesting people doing interesting experiments!
Bounrnville School (comprehensive school in Birmingham for GCSEs and A-levels) followed by The University of Nottingham for my degrees
GCSEs, A-levels, BSc, MSc (currently working on the PhD)
Freelance sound, lighting and theatre technician
University of Nottingham
Me and my work
I work in various labs in Nottingham and around Europe to study molecules on surfaces with the aim to develop and understand new methods of energy production
I am a 3rd year PhD student working on a technique called “electrospray deposition”. This involves taking a liquid (normally a solution containing some interesting molecules) and squirt it out of a small capillary tube. We apply a large electric field which causes the liquid break up into loads of tiny drops that we fire into a vacuum chamber (we use loads of pumps to suck all the air out so the pressure is one trillionth that of atmospheric pressure).
I work in lots of different places: As well as several labs in Nottingham, I frequently visit labs across Europe – most commonly a synchrotron called MAXLab in Sweden where I probably spend around one month out of every year. I therefore get to work with loads of different scientists from around the world. We call going to a synchrotron “beamtime” which is always a great experience.
My Typical Day
Drink some coffee, pick one of my experiments, try and make it work, get frustrated with it, go home and try again tomorrow
Task number one is to work out what I am going to do. This could be one of many different experiments I am involved with, bits of instrument development/testing, data analysis or some boring admin stuff. I have started many different projects over the time of my PhD (and that doesn’t count the ones from my Master’s that I never finished!) – most of which are still half finished. The aim of my final year is to not start anything new and get some things finished.
I normally go into work at around 10am and leave at 6pm or 7pm. About a year ago I adopted a policy where I would not get out of bed until I knew what I was going to do when I got into work which I find works well!
I am fortunate/crazy enough to collaborate with lots of other scientists both in the physics department and in other sciences such as pharmacy. I also have these weeks of “beamtime” where I go and use large facilities in different countries. This means that often, some experiments become higher priority than others so working out what to do is often a task of prioritising and working to deadlines.
I also sit on the outreach committee, postgraduate committee, safety committee and am a member of the safety operations group… so I also attend more meetings than the average student!
Finally, I am a freelance sound, lighting and AV technician in the live events and theatre industry – often I spend evenings or weekends doing this. I really enjoy the contrast to the day job.
So in summary: I am a very busy person!
What I'd do with the money
Get a 3D Printer
In terms of communicating science, it is helpful to have models that people can touch and interact with. Quite a few of us in Nottingham have been chatting about how we could use 3D printed models to help explain what we do. I don’t think I could get a printer that is best suited to what we want to do for £500, but it would make a sizeable contribution to a project we are struggling to fund.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Theatre obsessed physicist
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Bellowhead – an awesome folk band who are possibly the best live act out there!
What's your favourite food?
Does beer count…? If not, south indian.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Touring european cities in an orchestra was pretty fun!
What did you want to be after you left school?
I had absolutely no idea!
Were you ever in trouble at school?
What was your favourite subject at school?
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
Levitated stuff using huge magnets!!
What or who inspired you to become a scientist?
Probably my parents
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
My 3 science wishes: Be better and maths, be able to enjoy every day, discover something that changes the world (even just a little bit!)
Tell us a joke.
The optimists sees the glass as half full and the pessimists as half empty. Engineers see the glass as twice as big as it needs to be.
Working in my main lab in Nottingham with my supervisor. I work in “ultra high vacuum” so we do our experiments inside these stainless steel containers from which we have sucked almost all the air out:
My research is based around a technique called electrospray deposition. The instrument we use is the bit sticking out at 45 degrees in the above photo. A close up photo of the process is shown here. We force a liquid through a small metal tube (covered in an orange sleeve) and apply a large voltage to it causing the liquid to explode into a plume of tiny droplets that move very quickly.
In order to understand this process in more detail, I work in a different lab where I designed some equipment to take high speed videos of the process using a laser, a microscope and a high speed camera:
Here are some examples of the images I can get. In the first image, I zoomed out a long way so you can see the whole process. On the left hand side is the capillary tube and on the left hand side is the entrance into the vacuum system. In the second image, I zoomed all the way in to see the detail of what is when the droplets (which are only a few microns wide) form.
As I mentioned before, I spend quite a lot of time in Sweden. The lab we work in is called MaxLab where we used a synchrotron to generate x-rays. A synchrotron is a large instrument in which electrons travel round and round in a large circle really quickly. Using the electrons, we can generate X-rays which pass though a load of clever optics before hitting our sample. This photo shows me at the the final part of the instrument where we prepare and measure our samples.
These labs are quite big – so people sometimes use scooters to get around. This photo shows Andy who is another PhD student I work with a lot. When we go to these labs, we run the experiment 24 hours a day for a week so you can’t do it on your own!
Now we move across Europe into France. This is a photo of a lab called “Soleil” which is a synchrotron in a huge donut shaped building that is hundreds of meters across. I am the person in the right hand side of the photo and the equipment shown below me is the part of the synchrotron I was using.
These bits of equipment are pretty sophisticated and you need quite a lot of computers to control them. This is the control room for the bit of the instrument that I was using