Mount Temple Comprehensive School, Trinity College Dublin
B.A. (Hons) Theoretical Physics
CRANN institute Trinity College Dublin
PhD research student in Trinity College Dublin, CRANN
Trinity College Dublin
Favourite thing to do in science: Building things. Building my equipment, building my samples. Anything that requires tools, glues and steady hands. I’m a recovering Lego addict.
I make and test electronic devices built from graphene to probe the properties of this century’s “Wonder Material”
Single layer carbon, or Graphene is a very interesting material to scientists. It’s two dimensional structure opens the door to many interesting physical effects and would allow electric circuits to be made smaller than ever before. On top of that it’s tough, flexible, conductive, and made from one of the most abundant elements so it has the potential to be cheap.
But most of all it is young! It was theoretically described as far back as 1962, but no-one thought it could be made experimentally. Until 2004 when a group working in Manchester and Russia achieved the (seemingly) impossible with nothing more than some graphite flakes (similar to your pencil lead) some blank silicon wafers and scotch tape. Science!
So now we have this new material, it has amazing properties and it’s easy(ish) to make. Brilliant! But we don’t know very much about it. We have to do all the tests. Science knows almost everything there is to know about water, and iron, and wood because those things have been known for millennia. We’ve done the tests. Even so we are still finding new experiments to find out new things about our most ordinary materials. Well with graphene we still have all the work to do and, oh boy, people are. I am a small part of that.
I look at a system of very, very small (1000 times smaller than a hair-width) dots made of a magnetic metal called cobalt on top of graphene. I pass electrical current through the graphene while applying a magnetic field to the graphene and cobalt. I also cool my samples down to very low temperatures (around -220 degrees) because at low temperatures everything calms down and becomes easier to decipher. Certain effects only become visible at temperatures close to absolute zero, any hotter and there is just too much noise.
From looking at the behaviour of my graphene and cobalt system I can learn about graphene and also figure out ways to better use graphene in real life devices like your phone or your computer. The more we know the more we can imagine.
My Typical Day
Check email, Set-up a long experiment, Read papers, Lunch, Check email, Lecture, Collect data, Make a Graph, Check email
There really is no typical day for me. Some weeks I am fabricating my samples which means long hours in clean rooms using electron beams and chemicals and hoping that I don’t make a mistake and destroy hours of work and hundreds of euro.
The next day I might be preparing my finished samples for measurement which involves peering into a microscope and making my hands as steady as possible while I bond a hair thin wire to an area the size of a pin-point. Also pumps and vacuum chambers which are all kinds of fun.
Then a week of measuring. If my sample is alive I have to do as many tests on it as possible before it dies. Electrical systems can be as delicate as biological systems that way. I might test a sample for up to a month with each set of measurements giving me ideas for further test to do. Sometimes in science there is such a thing as too much data, it can be difficult to narrow your field of focus when you are seeing 3 or 4 effects happening in your sample. It is important to test in the right way and I spend as much time thinking about and discussing my tests as doing them.
After I collect all the data I can think of – well, I have to look at it. I have to graph it up and run it through formulae and programs and my own brain to see what I have. It’s the most scientific part of my week.
In a way my “typical days” are representative of the scientific process. You must devise your experiment, collect your data, and analyse! In other words: How? What? Why?
What I'd do with the money
Send science education kits to children in Ghana
Recently my sister made a trip to Ghana as part of cultural and educational exchange programme run by her secondary school. While over there her and her classmates spent some time with the children of a village and also an orphanage. They brought school supplies to the children and even taught a few classes about various topics (e.g. The Water Cycle, Photosynthesis, Volcanoes, World Geography).
What struck my sister, she later told me, was the eagerness and willingness of the children to learn. Many of the teachers they had were graduates only of the school they were teaching in, they were dedicated and caring but lacking in expertise and outside knowledge. Even the classes devised by Irish secondary school students contained a lot of information that the kids might never have otherwise learned.
She also said that they LOVED hand-on and practical work as the schools had no money to provide such things for all the students. Even paper and colouring pencils were in short supply.
I would use the €500 to put together and send practical experiment science kits to schools in the regions of Ghana my sister visited. I would aim to send reusable apparatus so that a kit per class could last years and teach hundreds of kids about science.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Smiley, confused, Nerdfighter
Who is your favourite singer or band?
The Velvet Underground and all subsequent bands influenced by The Velvet Underground
What's your favourite food?
What is the most fun thing you've done?
I got to sit on the back of an elephant when I was 6. It’s ears were so soft and leathery
What did you want to be after you left school?
A science teacher
Were you ever in trouble at school?
I twice was trusted with the keys to the entire school, that’s how little trouble I was in in school
What was your favourite subject at school?
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
Teaching practical science workshops for primary and secondary school children
What or who inspired you to become a scientist?
My second year science teacher. She was so (I’m sorry) TERRIBLE that I just had to become as scientist so I could stop people from teaching science badly.
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
I would have gotten an English degree and become a…um…well…?
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
That I had the funding to do whatever research I wanted and buy all the equipment I would ever need; That I had less anxiety about everything; Honestly? That I could time-travel – that would be so cool!
Tell us a joke.
Did you hear about the man who drowned in a bowl of muesli? He was pulled in by a strong current. Ba-dum-tish!
I told my cousin I was doing this competition and he sent me this! I think it’s the best present I’ve ever gotten!
This is one of my samples. The gold part is gold, real 99% pure gold. Those are my electrodes, they are how I supply and measure the electric currents and voltages in my sample. The blueish square is actually hundreds of tiny (100 nm) dots of a metal called cobalt. Cobalt is magnetic. Underneath the cobalt is a flake of single-layer graphene.
This chamber holds a very strong electro-magnet. How do we tell if the magnetic field is on? Why scatter allen keys on top of it of course. If they are standing up at gravity-defying angles, you’ve got a magnetic field!
Because I work at low temperatures sometime I get to play with liquid nitrogen. And by “play” I mean “be absolutely responsible and careful and never play at all!” Liquid nitrogen can be dangerous stuff because it is so cold that it can freeze all the cells in your body. If you get a bad splash of LN on you you get burned, like freezer burn. But it is also incredibly fun to pour some onto the ground and watch it boil violently at room temperature! Nitrogen gas is harmless, the air around you right now is 78% nitrogen.
Science isn’t all hard work. My group’s lab is the only one in the building with it’s own leisure facilities – this dart board gets a lot of use when one of us is measuring! Sometimes we have conventions and receptions with food, biscuits and beer-soft drinks, I mean soft drinks. Here is a picture of the atomic structure of graphene made out of soft drink bottles. Can you see the hexagonal structure?