Secondary Schools: Liebfrauenschule Koeln, Cologne, Germany (’00-’06), Blackwater Community School, Lismore, Ireland (’06-’07); College (undergrad): Trinity College Dublin (’07-’11), University of Oregon, USA (Autumn ’10); College (postgrad): Trinity College Dublin (’11-present)
BA (mod) in Physics and Chemistry of advanced materials
I haven’t really worked in any significant “real” jobs yet…
I am currently a PhD student in Chemistry
Officially I am not employed as I am a student. Realistically I get a stipend (pay) by the School of Chemistry and CRANN in Trinity College.
Favourite thing to do in science: A favourite thing in science is hard to pin down. I think learning about lots of different things is what I love most about it, regardless of the scientific area you’re talking about. There’s more to see, than can ever be seen…
I build nanostructures from atoms and molecules… kind of like using LEGO, but even the finished products are smaller than a virus.
Many nano-materials have very promising properties that would be great for use in electronics (like smartphones and computers), sensing (like glucose sensors for diabetics) and materials strengthening (like car hulls or tennis rackets).
Unfortunately a lot of the ways these materials are made in a lab are not feasible for industrial use as they are too slow or expensive. Think about it like building a car: You can spend a year building one in your garage, making even the screws yourself, but if you want to sell a million of them you really need to improve your process (a conveyor belt and a factory will be necessary for a start). In a similar fashion I work on devising methods for making these nano-materials on large scales without reducing their quality too much so they can actually make their way into your phones and computers rather than just stay a concept in a lab.
My approach is to take small molecules and combine them in certain ways to build useful structures that can then be implemented in everyday devices on a large scale. In contrast to some other methods this process can be expanded to making large quantities of these materials without much added cost or time.
My Typical Day
Make stuff, have lunch, analyse stuff, improve, repeat. In-between I fit teaching, chatting to colleagues and some level of procrastination.
It’s very similar to the everyday workday you probably see from your own parents.
I arrive in work sometime between 9 and 10 am, turn on my computer and check e-mails. After that I generally turn on my tools and start a process, the parameters and conditions adjusted to previous results. When a sample has been made there are various analysis techniques I can use. Depending on which one(s) I use, there is some sample preparation involved which can take a while. If the analysis turns out to be good, I pass the sample on to some colleagues who make interesting devices with it (like transistors, the basic building block of any computer chip or a simple gas sensor). If it’s bad (which is usually the case) I have to deduce if it was better or worse than previous ones and adjust my synthesis conditions to further improve my materials.
In between that I generally have lunch at some point, meetings, teaching and general chat with my colleagues.
Doesn’t sound like that much fun to you? It can be tedious at times but when you succeed at making something that nobody in the world has made before it makes all the hardship worth it!
What I'd do with the money
I’d contribute it to our chemistry outreach project which is something I’ve been quite heavily involved in for a while.
There is a Chemistry outreach programme in Trinity where PhD students go to secondary schools (usually TY or 5th year students) to talk about what a chemist actually does and then do an experiment with the students that the researcher designed him/herself. It’s usually about 20 minutes presentation and 20 minutes experiment. I have done this myself and went to five schools where I gave a talk and showed the students a fun little nanoscience analysis experiment that I designed myself.
In the last two years we received more visit requests from schools than we can possibly meet so we decided to film the six best talks and put together a kit with two experiments that can be set up by the teacher without the scientist present. These will be sent out as a package of talks plus experiments. Even though this is supported by the college, it is expensive to send these things to over 700 secondary schools all over Ireland so I would like to give the money towards the production of more of these outreach packages so one of them can end up in your chemistry class one day.
You can learn some more details about this here: http://chemistry.tcd.ie/outreach/pg-outreach/index.php
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
As a friend of mine put it when asked this question about me: German, German and German! (Make of that what you will!)
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Queen, I think. I’m open to most things though.
What's your favourite food?
Steak with pepper sauce; also a German thing called “Mett”
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Tough choice: I hiked the Himalayas (Annapurna circuit) and cycled from Cologne in Germany to Budapest in Hungary, not sure which one was better.
What did you want to be after you left school?
At the time I only knew I wanted to be a generic “scientist”. I had no real idea what that meant though.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Not really. I never did anything out of the ordinary in terms of pranks. Not doing homework got me in trouble at times (German schools are very strict on that).
What was your favourite subject at school?
Physics and History
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
I think either my trip to CERN to see the particle accelerator or the trip to Sweden to watch the Aurora Borealis has to win this. Not that either have much to do with what I do nowadays.
What or who inspired you to become a scientist?
I always liked the sciences in school and enjoy building things from scratch. When it came to applying for college there wasn’t even a question about doing science, just what science (physics or chemistry). I was also slightly tempted to do history but there just aren’t as many easy jobs in that…
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
I’d love to be a pro-athlete (track & field or high jump were my best) but I guess that’s just a dream. A baker is more realistic…
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
These may sound really strange… Firstly, being a very outdoorsy person I’d like to change the Irish weather to be more sunny at the weekends when I go hiking (it can rain more at night to not upset the farmers for all I care). Secondly I’d like to have a TARDIS (watch Dr. Who if you don’t know what that is), mostly for the instantaneous travel and language conversion features (don’t care so much about time travel) and thirdly, to always have the right pair of tweezers at hand in the lab…
Tell us a joke.
Okay, here we go… two atoms walk into a bar. Suddenly one of them starts frantically searching its pockets and says “Damn, I’ve lost an electron!” “Are you sure?” “Yeah, I’m positive.”
This is “my” atomic layer deposition tool, a machine that can, when operated correctly, deposit individual layers of atoms through specific chemical reactions.
This is one of our most-used furnaces that can run up to 1100 degrees Celsius and is used for making a material called Graphene.
The cold trap on one of our furnaces. It uses liquid nitrogen to filter out all possible nasty substances to prevent them from going into the atmosphere.
A set of tweezers and other implements for lab use. Chances are, the one I need still isn’t among them…
Our cleaning rota for the lab!
A rather trippy sample I made containing boron on nickel.
The Keeley Cup, a trophy given at the annual chemistry soccer tournament that our lab won for the first time in many years last September.