Favourite Thing: Using very powerful electron microscopes to see individual atoms!
University of Glasgow (2002 – 2010)
MSci Physics, PhD Physics
University of Glasgow
University of Glasgow
Me and my work
I study exciting new materials which will probably be in your future smart phone’s memory
Due to enormous websites such as YouTube and Facebook, the amount of data generated in the world is doubling every year. How will manufacturers meet demands to store increasing amounts of data generated in the future?
Currently, you can hold trillions of bytes of data in the palm of your hand, however at some point the limit in miniaturisation will be reached as the size of an individual atom is approached.
Rather than going smaller, one solution is to instead increase the material’s ability. The answer may lie in something called ‘spintronics’, which uses another property of the electron, known as its spin, in addition to its charge as in conventional electronic devices.
A certain group of materials, known as the transition metal oxides, may solve this problem. However we don’t fully understand them yet at the atomic level. Since extremely thin layers of material are needed in devices, very slight imperfections can dramatically change the material’s properties. My job is to use very powerful electron microscopes, to directly see the atoms of the material and try to understand the materials better.
My Typical Day
My typical day can involve making tiny samples to look at in the electron microscope, looking at various materials using the electron microscope, analysing images, responding to emails, undergraduate teaching and writing papers
What I'd do with the money
I would develop an activity to take into local schools to emphasize that science can be really fun!
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Happy, motivated and creative
Who is your favourite singer or band?
What's your favourite food?
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Travelled in a seaplane from Vancouver to Victoria
What did you want to be after you left school?
Wasn’t sure really, but I thought a physics degree would be a good start!
Were you ever in trouble at school?
No more than the average person
What was your favourite subject at school?
Physics or maths
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
Presented my work at Westminster and won a £1000 prize
What or who inspired you to become a scientist?
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
I’ve always thought it would be interesting to be a vet, so maybe that.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
To have permanent research funding, to visit New York and to have a puppy!
Tell us a joke.
Where does bad light end up? In a prism!
Here’s the very expensive electron microscope I use to look at the atomic structure of materials. It cost £2.6 million so you have to pass a driving test before you’re allowed to use it!
Here is an electron microscope image of lanthanum atoms (blue spots) appearing in a hexagonal pattern. The fact we can see this directly still amazes me every day!
Here’s an image of a tiny sample being plucked out of a big chunk of material, which can then be looked at in the electron microscope. We make it using a tool called the focused ion beam, or FIB. It can cut and weld on a really small scale which is really fun to watch!
…But it has also been used to make the world’s smallest toilet – a nanotoilet!