Assistant Professor in Experimental Nanoscience, School of Physics and Astronomy
The first and foremost rule I have, is never problem solve alone. Even the best and most experienced researchers can benefit from the perspective of another person.
1. Describe your research topic in ten words or less?
I study the life of electrons inside individual atoms.
2. Now describe it in everyday terms?
Contrary to what we scientists thought for a very long time, there is a lot happening inside of an atom. The is a very dense, very small core or nucleus at the center, which is nearly invisible unless one quite violently breaks atoms apart. There are also electrons - tiny charged particles, which sometimes behave as particles, sometimes as waves. When many electrons get stuffed into a single atom (which they often do), they get neatly sorted into an organized structure based on the principles of physics. We study what happens to those electrons, when we change the underlying principles.
3. What inspired you to pursue this research area?
Curiosity. I've always been fascinated by the concept that everything we are, everything we can see, touch, taste, and smell, is built from tiny objects which are pieced together like lego building blocks. My curiosity ran rampant - why does candy taste good and broccoli bad? Why is one metal one color and another metal a different color? In short, how can we account for the immense diversity of matter and life on our planet from such a simple concept as legos?
4. What are some of your day-to-day research activities?
The beauty of working as an experimental scientist is that days are often very different from one another. One day might be cooped up in my office dreaming of the next experiment. Another might be down in the lab (our labs usually are down...) tinkering with the equipment until our measurement is just right. Another might be talking with a student or researcher about how we might perform a new experiment or make a breakthrough with a different bit of analysis.
5. What do you enjoy most about your research?
For me, the best part of research, in general, is the unexpected. When attempting something new or even reproducing something older, we often find that experiments don't turn out exactly the way we'd expect. As soon as that happens, I'm excited. It might be unimportant or a mistake, but it just might be something new - an opportunity to add something tangible to the reservoir of human knowledge.
6. How have you approached any challenges you’ve faced in your research?
As an experimentalist, we face problems pretty much constantly. The first and foremost rule I have, is never problem solve alone. Even the best and most experienced researchers can benefit from the perspective of another person. Talking through problems and reasoning out the solutions is always more productive in a group.
7. What questions have emerged as a result of your recent work?
We recently found that the electronic configuration or valency of a single atom can have two possible states. In vacuum, where we generally think about atoms in the classroom, this is impossible because valances are separated by large amounts of energy - making one much more stable than any other. We found that a surface can make the energies of two valencies nearly equal. The question now is why and is it possible that this can be seen for other atoms on other surfaces?
8. What kind of impact do you hope your research will have?
I hope to inspire others to think critically about the "building blocks" of our world, and to examine the ways in which those building blocks can be put together. Ultimately, like many others, I hope to forge a connection between the fundamental properties we study in the lab and the technologies we use in our everyday life.
9. How do you link your research with your teaching?
My goal isn't to necessarily connect my personal research with teaching, but to connect the theory learned in the classroom to what can be measured in a lab. Often classwork devolves into complicated maths that tend to obscure rather than reveal the real physics of a problem. For me, the most illuminating lectures directly connected what we can describe from a theory to what we can measure in a lab.
10. What one piece of advice would you give your younger, less experienced research self?
Slow down and think more. We often get caught up in the day-to-day workings so deeply that we hardly take the time to think. Is this the right question to ask? Is this the right problem to solve? Am I moving very quickly in the wrong direction? The questions don't always have to have answers, but it helps to give them some thought.