Great Questions and lots of fun answering them!
Sandford Primary School, North Somerset 1987-1992; Churchill Comprehensive School 1992-1999, North Somerset; University of Edinburgh 1999-2003; University of Cambridge 2003-2006
A Levels in Chemistry, Physics, Maths and Further Maths; Master of Chemical Physics with Industrial Experience; PhD in Chemistry
ISIS neutron facility, Didcot, Oxfordshire, University of Glasgow
University of Bath
Favourite thing to do in my job: There is nothing more satisfying than sitting down at my computer after I’ve collected some data and watching a three-dimensional image of the atoms and molecules in my crystal appear in front of my eyes!
I use big expensive pieces of kit at places like Diamond Light Source to torture crystals – I heat and cool them, squeeze, shine high powered lasers at them, all whilst shining X-rays on them – this is to help us make things that are useful as sensors or to make medicines that dissolve better in your blood stream
I work in a Chemistry department but I’m not often found wearing a labcoat. I do very simple experiments to grow my crystals, but spend most of my time using big equipment to allow me to look inside crystals and see the arrangement of the atoms and molecules. Atoms and molecules are too small to see with the eye and even with the most powerful optical microscope in the world! We just can’t see them using light. So we have to use X-rays instead which we can’t see with our eye and we need to use a computer to turn the X-ray pattern into a picture of the atoms and molecules. You can learn more about what this means by watching these youtube cartoons. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uqQlwYv8VQI https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7hXiKiZZPs
Or you can find out more about crystallography here.
I am trying to understand how molecules are connected together inside the crystal and how this affects the way that they work. For instance, some of the substances that I make change colour when you heat them up and cool them down. These could be useful as temperature sensors. Others change colour when you put them under pressure. I also shine lasers at crystals and this can change things like the colour, the luminescence, the way it behaves when you flow an electrical current through it or the way it behaves when you apply a magnetic field to it. We are working to make things that are useful as sensors, data storage materials, colour changing devices (e.g. colour changing paint for your car!), or to find ways to make medicines more effective at getting into your bloodstream. All of this is just by playing tricks about how we get things into a solid, without changing the way that the atoms are connected together into molecules.
In the lab, I try and grow crystals that we can use in our experiments . The is exactly the same as if you have ever tried to do using a crystal growing kit, we dissolve the solid up in a liquid (we call it a solvent) and we let the liquid evaporate off slowly to try and give us nice, single crystals. We can tell that they are single by looking at them under a microscope and if they are fairly transparent with a regular shape and clear edges, there is a good chance that it will be good enough to use in an experiment.
A crystal is special because the atoms and molecules are arranged very regularly inside it much like a three dimensional brick wall. You can see an example of how the atoms are arranged in things like salt by this jelly baby and cocktail stick model or by looking at this model which is a scaled up version of the inside of a crystal of 3,5-dinitrobenzoic acid
We put the crystals on a diffractometer which is a machine which fires X-rays at the crystals. We usually cool the crystals down using liquid nitrogen to make the atoms move around less . We have a detector which works a bit like a CCTV camera but it sees X-rays instead of light. We see a pattern on the detector as demonstrated by my duck, quackers . By looking at the places where we see spots, we can do some maths using a computer and get a three-dimensional picture of the arrangement of the atoms and molecules inside the crystal. By looking at the arrangement of atoms and molecules in the crystal, we can work out how the solid does the job that it does.
Sometimes because we are trying to do a complicated experiment, or because the crystals are too small, we go to a synchrotron like Diamond Light Source to do experiments. This creates very high powered X-rays and means that we can do our experiments faster and on smaller crystals . These X-rays are so strong though, that they often burn holes in the crystals!
In our lab in Bath, we can shine LED lights onto our crystals or squeeze the crystals between two diamonds, or heat and cool them. This helps us to understand how the materials might be useful for storing information or as sensors for temperature and pressure. We can observe the crystals under a microscope as we do this too so that we can see any changes like colour changes which would be useful indicators. If we want to get more extreme, we can zap the crystals with lasers but we have to go to Diamond Light Source to do that and the experiments take several days to set up and then several more to collect the data!
My Typical Day
I put crystals on a machine called a diffractometer, shine X-rays on them and use a computer to analyse the results to give me a three dimensional picture of what it looks like inside the crystal
I spend a lot of time either at a microscope or at a computer. My desk isn’t very tidy but it has everything I need around it, including a good supply of different types of tea which I use to fuel my days! I will typically collect some data, then analyse the data and try and understand why the arrangement of the atoms and molecules is helping or preventing an interesting property of the solid material. There is often a lot of head scratching! I also look after a PhD student so we often talk together about what the we are seeing.
What I'd do with the prize money
I want to get a demonstration made that, using marbles, shows how a crystal grows.
It starts off with a flat base of marbles and then you pour the marbles over it without touching the base and the crystal grows in front of your eyes all by itself!
The marbles have to be the special non-shiny marbles otherwise the crystal doesn’t grow and all the marbles fall off!
I plan to take this demonstration into local schools and to national science festivals like the Big Bang Fair to help me to explain my science to the general public.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Short, cheeky, smiley
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
I really enjoy public engagement and I’ve been to the Big Bang Fair two years running there and its great fun!
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
Probably my physics teacher – he wasn’t a cool man (and we used to try and wind him up often!) but he had a real passion for the subject.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
No. I was very well behaved and rather quiet. I could be a little cheeky at times though!
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
A wildlife conservationalist – preferably something to do with ducks!
Who is your favourite singer or band?
What's your favourite food?
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Probably has to be singing in the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff watching Wales win the Grand Slam in the Six Nations Rugby!
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
To be a bit taller (its hard for me to reach things on high shelves!), to be telepathic, to be able to continue doing the job I love
Tell us a joke.
Why did the penguins start jumping up and down when they first met? Because they were trying to break the ice!