Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Nomadic Research: random walk or purposeful journey?

(Reflections on a life in science: #3 a timeline in research)

A respected colleague once referred to my research as ‘nomadic’ by way of explaining, to his satisfaction at least, why I wasn’t ‘known’ for something in particular. Many scientists specialize relatively early on in their professional careers and then dig ever-deeper into their chosen patch in the expectation of unearthing key, fundamental insights. We need people like that; they offer the potential for solid long-term foundations to our understanding of the world – but I could never aspire to be one of them. I’ve written about this before (e.g. here and here) and continue to offer no excuse for my pseudo-random walk through science. More than that, I will assert that I wouldn’t have it any other way: to have been able to ‘follow my nose’ across all sorts of traditional boundaries and through several interfaces has been a wonderfully exciting privilege and pleasure. It’s nigh-on impossible to say when or how this mind-set had its genesis or took root. Perhaps the fact that I had chosen to study combined sciences at the university I attended but ended up taking a Physics degree because of an (unchallenged – one simply didn’t!) administrative mistake prior to my arrival (see here) is at least a ‘symptomatic’ place to start.
Substitute Mrs Newport for “Mrs Brown” and the picture is complete.     (Explainer: for the non-specialist cartoon-lover: Robert Brown gave his name to Brownian Motion  – the observed random movement of small particles as they are buffeted by even smaller, ‘invisible’, particles; The classic example is that of floating pollen grains observed under a microscope as they suffer impacts with water molecules.)

Undertaking a degree in Physics didn’t ‘cure’ me of my ‘nomadic tendencies’ at all, any more than my year two primary school teacher stopped me gesticulating when I talk by making me sit on my hands. In my final year project I found myself using a technique which would have been well-understood by many chemists in order to study a metal salt in aqueous solution (electron spin resonance, ESR, sometimes EPR: paramagnetic). This is not the stuff of a classic physics project. Out of that I was attracted to and then recruited into a PhD by someone (see here) who would later publish a paper with the title “Liquid State Physics, or is it Chemistry?”. So, the die was cast well before I launched my own line in research. Indeed, even if one abandons the notion that this represents a genuinely considered multi-disciplinary approach to science at what was then a rather embryonic stage, there were nevertheless clear signs of nomadic tendencies in other respects. The focus of my early-stage career shifted many times, even before becoming a university lecturer and expected to define, resource and pursue an independent line of research alongside other core duties. From that early dalliance with ESR and the aqueous solutions of manganese sulfate and chloride I moved into the electrical properties of liquid metals as my PhD work. Thereafter, as a ‘postdoc’ earning my first salary, into the atomic-scale structural properties of molten salts; on to the synthesis and optical properties of amorphous thin-film semiconductors, and then neutron spectroscopy instrumentation and the electronic structure of semi-metals. I was still only 30 years old at this point. One might add to this the geographical moves that were associated with this progression: several years in Leicester (with experiments elsewhere, including France), then Oxfordshire and the USA before finally landing in Kent.
Part and parcel of a PhD, especially in the days before computer-controlled equipment (as was the case for my early research) is working ‘all hours’. Indeed, I was the founding member of the 36-hour club during my PhD: running single experiments requiring ones presence for at least a day and a half! To avoid being grilled during a (rare) visit from Security in the late watches of the night one needed formal permission: this one signed by my then Head of Department and PhD supervisor John Enderby (later Professor Sir John Enderby FRS). See also here.

After gaining a BSc, a PhD and some postdoctoral research experience whilst based at Leicester I moved to the pulsed neutron scattering facility (then called the SNS – spallation neutron source – now the ISIS neutron and muon facility) at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. In the early ’80s UK universities were under immense pressure and there seemed to be no longer-term future there for a young postdoc such as myself, so this was a move that needed to happen. Although nowhere is ‘perfect’, it was in most respects a great place to work for the years I was there. I was particularly privileged to have lead responsibility for one of its ‘Day 1’ beamlines, the electron-volt spectrometer – eVS. For a little over three years I steeped myself in instrumentation design, in completely new areas of physics, in writing major computer packages, in project management, … the ‘learning curve’ was very steep indeed. It is a rare thing for a scientist to be ‘in at the ground floor’ of a major international research facility, to have walked around the beast during its construction and have been able to reach out and touch the massive and complex bits of kit which were destined to be inaccessible once the eventual operational phase commenced. To have been there, in a dedicated team sharing a common overall goal, to witness the moment when the whole thing is switched on and comes to life, was a once-in-a-career experience.
The ‘Day 1’ layout for the ISIS pulsed neutron source (left - eVS is the 'long' beamline at roughly the '7 minutes past' position); top right is a picture of me with the ‘business end’ of the eVS beamline – the spectrometer itself, which I took to the USA for early tests before its installation at ISIS – and below right are top and side elevations of the beamline from my collection of original design drawings/blueprints.

However, stepping back just a little, one of the accidental outcomes of a slow-down in government funding for the project in the early/mid-’80s was the opportunity of being seconded, along with crates containing my prototype eVS, to the neutron research facility housed in a non-secret part of the truly huge Los Alamos National Laboratory – in the middle of a very big patch of New Mexico wilderness in the USA – for a total of 15 months. Professionally, this was a great experience; in terms of family life, it was distinctly less positive.
Mementos from my sojourn in New Mexico: an appropriately designed ATM card (but don’t be fooled by the word “national” since bank accounts were distinctly local in reality), my hard-earned forklift truck driving license and an evocatively decorative front cover to our area telephone directory. My security pass limited me to the civil research areas only; I was told that the word “BRITISH” was in upper case 'in honour of' the Manhattan Project physicist and spy Klaus Fuchs - apocryphal I’m sure, although my host did drive me to the bridge over the Rio Grande at which Fuchs had his dead-letter drop …

Three decades of life as a lecturer at the University of Kent might at first glance convey an image of a settled existence.#  In some senses that has been the case: not only is it a very attractive corner of the country to live and to work in but, in addition, I never wanted to have to uproot my family from friends, schools and so on. However, the research side of things has remained somewhat nomadic – both in terms of geography and topic. To kick things off, and in order to be able properly to support my first PhD student (Ann, see here) I had to try to gain external funding. This is a common struggle for the vast majority of us engaged in research in the experimental sciences, and in competition with many of them I wrote a bid for funding from what was then the Science Research Council (later the Science & Engineering RC, now the Engineering & Physical Sciences RC with some overlap with the Science & Technology Facilities Council). I proposed to them a three-year project which, in essence, melded my former experience with neutron scattering methods into a study of metals in amorphous semiconductors. It worked: they awarded me almost £50k, which was a very sizeable sum in 1987. It is at this juncture, however, that the first of many ‘random’ sideways steps had to be taken. Due to the conjunction of a realisation that it was going to be harder than anticipated to generate the samples we needed and of the emergence of a serious fault at one of the neutron facilities my student and I needed to rely upon, we could no longer bank on getting our answers in the way I had planned. Put simply, Ann’s PhD and the progression of my own career were placed in jeopardy. Necessity, it is said, is the mother of invention and in this instance the immediate problem was converted into a long-term opportunity via conversations with two people who, with hindsight, opened my eyes to a whole new landscape of possibilities. In short, this is where the use of synchrotron x-ray sources entered the scene. On the basis of advice and guidance from Richard Catlow we started using high energy x-ray diffraction, and with the encouragement of Neville Greaves we began the exploration of x-ray absorption spectroscopy. This work was undertaken at the world’s first synchrotron dedicated to x-ray generation at the UK’s Daresbury Laboratory; although the facility has been closed for a decade (‘replaced’ by the Diamond Light Source mentioned above) the memories associated with working there will never fade.*
A cut-away depiction in Lego of scientists using a synchrotron x-ray beam for research: quite life-like really … (see here also)

It’s notoriously difficult to get follow-on funding from the RCs, but by the time this first dollop of funding had dried up I had stumbled across ‘diamond-like’ carbon as an intriguing ultra-hard coating material and managed to obtain funding to study the spectrum of materials found under that one loose banner. This new line of research was associated with an accelerated pace in the development of my ideas, and both the size of my team and the extent of my laboratory facilities grew significantly (including a bespoke plasma deposition system to make our diamond-like carbons). Several more collaborators were added to my circle – including the first teams from outside the UK and from industry. Published outputs in journals and at conferences rose at the same time. Time for a life outside of work fell correspondingly.

Again, the need to chase the funds required to run my research team and laboratory led me to seek out new areas of potential for research and the next step was to prove particularly significant: for the first time I started working on the atomic-scale structure of glass, wherein I have remained ever since. The first glass-oriented proposal to be funded, once again with additional funding from industry, was in the area of non-linear optical glasses and specifically those associated with fibre-optic systems. There followed an extended period studying comparably exotic glasses, with both optical and magnetic properties offering enormous potential. Indeed, so complex were these new glasses that my team had to move into the use of even more new methods, including computer modelling. It was at this stage that my approach to research took upon itself the label, much-deployed since it was first coined, of a materials-centred methodology. What turned out to be a key next step for me was to start working with Mark Smith on sol-gel glassy materials (see here). These forms of ‘chemically-grown’ glasses are as endlessly fascinating as they are difficult to understand, and a flexible approach to their study – the materials-centred methodology – was a pre-requisite. What this meant in practice was a complete disregard for the traditional physics-chemistry boundary and the adoption of whatever empirical methods might add a useful new piece to the jigsaw. This was FUN; so much so that our partnership not only carried on but continued to blossom more and more even after Mark left for a post at another university.
Serendipity plays a significant role in the life of a ‘nomadic’ researcher: Priya, a PhD student, presented some of her early-stage work in a poster at a small conference in 2000. I was one of the judges for the ‘best poster’ prize and in that role explored the contents of her poster with her, asking the naïve question “Where does the calcium sit in the glass matrix?” She referred me to her supervisor, Larry Hench, and the rest is, as they say, history.

When asked to say which piece of research has been the best/most rewarding/most useful/… it’s not uncommon for a researcher to talk about the work they are currently engaged in, almost irrespective of what that is. With that ‘health warning’ in mind I will nevertheless declare that the most recent decade of my research career represents, in many ways, the pinnacle of my endeavours: our work on bioactive glasses. As the label implies, these glasses elicit an active response within a biological system. Specifically, as they dissolve harmlessly in body fluids (blood plasma, even saliva) the glasses we have focused upon produce a mineral called hydroxyapatite: this is the mineral component of bone. At the same time, the dissolution products up-regulate certain genes and promote the activity of bone-building cells called osteoblasts; the result is new bone: the slowly dissolving glass acting as a scaffold for the regeneration of lost bone. So many boxes were ticked during this research partnership that it could hardly fail to rank at the top level in terms of my own professional satisfaction. Here was a complex puzzle needing all the experimental and computational techniques at our disposal (and some that had to be taken to new levels) and with the benefit of being able to work within a partnership of excellent people having a truly interdisciplinary perspective across physics, chemistry, materials science and biomedical engineering. Alongside this, and in part as a result of the research methodology we had embraced and ‘show-cased’, I also had the pleasure of contributing to projects as distinct as dentistry (mapping the movement of titanium from metal implants/prosthetics into a patient’s surrounding tissue), drug delivery (encapsulating anti-cancer drugs into a glass which lodges in a tumour and there dissolves) and heritage science (see here). This really was a good couple of decades – and a wonderfully fulfilling culmination to my academic research career.

In conclusion, I think it’s safe to say that I have indeed been somewhat nomadic in my research and that this has suited me very well indeed. However, I remain firmly of the opinion that this is most definitely not synonymous with any reasonable concept of a ‘random walk’ in that there have been rational choices made along the way: there was direction, even if it might have been tricky to articulate why particular choices were being made at the time. I'll need to defer to others in respect of being ‘known’ for something in particular, but I'd hope they'd mention the pioneering interdisciplinary work we've done in establishing the materials-centred approach mentioned above in the study of complex amorphous materials like glasses: when we started, it was a rare thing to find a truly cogent and coherent use of multiple techniques in the study of a single given material.

Earlier posts in this series:
1) The Girt Pike - beginnings and transitions.
2) Do Labels Last a Lifetime? - people and other influences.

* Many of these memories are far from glamorous: the canteen food could be appalling, although the hostel breakfasts were excellent and there was a good pub within easy walking distance in emergencies (the 'Ring O’ Bells', now very much altered). One had to agree to work ‘24x7’ for the duration of whatever time one had been awarded for an experiment; whilst this was relatively straightforward when my research team had grown a little, there was only Ann and me in the earliest stages and more than once one or the other of us could be seen cat-napping in ‘experiment-adjacent’ chairs. However, the potential for good science was high, and like the complementary neutron sources that have figured so prominently in my research career it was a wonderful place to spark ideas off talented people and to make new professional friends and acquaintances.

# There's an amusing story to tell here, involving a curious opening sentence to a Vice Chancellor's speech and a kind of invisibility; it will have to await another post as this one is already on the long side.


  1. excellent piece. Much appreciated by a fellow nomad.

    1. Thank you Simon - when a compliment comes from someone of your stature it cannot fail to lift the spirits.