...ingenious people from our Global Innovation & Technology Centre
Our Global Innovation and Technology Centre is where we turn ideas into reality. It’s a place where our designers, scientists and engineers come together in diverse teams, taking on some of the world’s biggest challenges to unlock the power of ingenuity to build a positive human future. Read on to meet the people who make our Centre special.
My job is using science to solve problems. To solve the problem, you need to understand it, whether it’s diagnosing processes or technologies that already exist or creating new ones. Sometimes, it takes engineering. Other times, it’s about going back to fundamental science, like optics, quantum mechanics or biology. That’s why we have an Applied Sciences group. Within that, physics enables quite a lot of things.
Problems come in different forms and start from different points. Things I’m working on now (or have done recently) show that a client might want to 3D-print personalised chocolate but have no way to do it. Or they’ll have technology, like a specific kind of laser system, and want to know what they can do with it. They might want to measure their manufacturing line better to get more control of the process and increase their profits. Or they might want to measure very sensitive electro-magnetic or gravitational fields and find out which technology will let them do it. We’ve designed a quantum sensor for that.
'What if?’ is my favourite question, closely followed by ‘how about?’ They both start with something mad that could just work.
I have three eureka moments a year - maximum. In a year, the number of good ideas – the genuine eureka moments – is quite small. I’m up to one this year. Since starting at PA eight years ago, I’ve probably had about 15, whether it’s finding a way to 3D-print chocolate or pharmaceuticals, or make a quantum sensor more widely usable. Apart from our internship programme for university students, which I set up and grew, they’re the things I’m most proud of.
The most exciting part of the job is realising you’ve got something that doesn’t exist anywhere else.
We’re getting quite excited about the quantum sensor. If we get to build it, it’ll be the first of its kind in Europe.
Coming up with a solution and realising it’s doable, like with 3D-printed chocolate, is also right up there. Chocolate is extremely difficult to work with! There’s a lot of satisfaction in applying science in interesting ways to create things that make life better, or at least makes our clients stronger.
One of the hardest things is when you have an idea for something genuinely new but can’t tell anyone because only you and two other people are allowed to know about it. Also, doing the creative and clever things we do here, and doing them rapidly, means the learning curve is constantly at about 45 degrees. So, for a little while at least, you need to get used to being the least informed person in the room.
It’s also hard when you have ideas that clients don’t go ahead with. One of my eureka moments was realising that a manufacturing process worked the same forwards as backwards, letting us work around a key process patent. We built and demonstrated a concept, and the client loved it. But then priorities changed and it was shelved. That was one of my small number of eureka moments used up.
It’s a great time to be a physicist. You’ve got really important work grabbing the headlines, like the James Webb Space Telescope that will tell us about the origins of the first galaxies. And there’s the ITER nuclear fusion programme, which could give us clean nuclear power without most of the radioactive waste or any of the meltdown risk. We’re also seeing physics skills finding their way into spheres way beyond academic physics. The methods we use to model what happens in space or in high-energy space experiments are finding their way into fields like epidemiology, finance and communications.
It’s really exciting, too, to see big public and private sector money going into quantum computing. It means we’ll be seeing real impact from this science sooner rather than later. That’s just one example. One look at the list of the Institute of Physics’ special interest groups tells you the diversity of UK physics, from particle accelerators to food science. And this isn’t just academic work – the economic output of the UK’s photonics industry is comparable to that of its pharmaceutical industry! You’ll find us everywhere you look.
I don’t think I appreciated how much variety there would be here, even though it’s why I applied for the job. I expected the diversity of sectors, but not the diversity of scientific challenges. I think I’m the only physicist I know who’s used every single element of their degree. There was particle physics, quantum mechanics, astrophysics, condensed matter and interactions between big heavy objects – and I’ve used it all. On one project, the numbers started at 1012 and went up. For the quantum sensor, they start at 10-12 and go down. That’s pretty much the energy spectrum of modern physics.
You don’t want to think outside the box. You want to think inside the box. But the box has to be properly defined.
If the box is too big and nebulous and turns out not to exist, it can be quite hard work. But if clients have a box in mind and they can talk to us and help us explore its boundaries, that makes for a better outcome.
These days, we work more in teams with our clients.You get a better relationship that way and solve problems together. The client brings a lot of contextual knowledge you can’t get anywhere else, and most major decisions are joint ones.
The whole reason I’ve been here eight years is because there isn’t a particular problem I want to solve. If there was, I’d be doing that. If I was a 3D print builder for the chocolate industry, fine, but it’s all I’d ever do. Instead, I want to have a breadth of challenges and science, and I’d like to have someone hit refresh on that about once every six months.
About 90 per cent of what I’m doing is stuff I find intellectually really interesting. That might change to only 10 per cent six months from now. But how many people in the UK can say they’ve worked on 3D-printing chocolate, quantum sensing and machine learning in the same year?
I enjoy cooking in my spare time.I’ve built my own sous-vide machine out of a pressure cooker and some electronics. And I got a smoker for my birthday, so I’ve been smoking salmon in lockdown. I try to avoid snacking though, so I don’t have a favourite brain food. But, pre-lockdown, I did like Friday afternoon cakes in the office. It was a great way to find out what’s going on and, if you’re new, meet people who you didn’t know existed. So, for me, it’s not so much what you’re eating as who you’re eating it with.