A New View of Small Things


If I never hear the saying "small things amuse small minds" again, it'll be too soon! At Daresbury Laboratory near Warrington, UK, we have just spent more than £1.5 million of taxpayers' money to build a new electron microscope facility that is capable of imaging atoms and, yes, atoms are by definition the smallest part of any thing. But believe me it has taken all of my skills and, more important (and potent), those of my collaborators to bring the SuperSTEM project to this stage. We now have a facility unique in the world with an instrument that cannot be found anywhere else in Europe--that is, there are three other electron microscopes of the same generation as ours in the United States but each belongs to one department for one project. What we are trying to do with the SuperSTEM project is to get beyond research done with "my instrument in my lab" to a more collaborative "big science" approach that shares information and resources.

We have our first electron microscope working now and, while we are waiting for a second instrument to arrive in 18 months, we are developing and debugging the microscope, looking at samples for "friends and family," and organising the process of allowing more general access. I really enjoy working in our little lab and look forward each day to getting the next bit of progress under our belts.

The picture above shows one of the early successes we had with our new electron microscope and gives you an idea of what we can achieve with such an instrument. Our sample was a structure made of silicon (bottom half) and the compound nickel disilicide (top half) and we wanted to determine the atom positions at the interface. To do so we drew the "ball-and-stick" models of the atom positions using the well-known structure of the two crystals on either side of the interface and compared them with the images obtained with our microscope (which you can see on the background). Our pictures have not been processed--we really see those atom columns light up on the screen in real time as the very small (as small as an atom) electron beam moves over the interface. We then found a comforting theoretical paper (not everyone has the opportunity to find comfort in a theoretical physics paper) that showed the structure we had deduced was the most stable (read "correct") indeed.

Of course theoreticians often get there first but, fortunately, they need us to interrogate nature to confirm their predictions of what an atomic structure may be. Still, you may be wondering why, in addition to being beautiful, this interface is so important. Well, the short answer is that, technologically, it isn't ? yet. But it may well be part of the next generation of always-smaller semiconductor devices and in any case it contributes to the process of understanding and controlling the structure and hence properties of new semiconductors.

So I guess the nature of my job means that, even though I am a scientist, I could also be characterised as a "measurement technician." This can be a sore point in some cases--a scientist who comes up with a hypothesis that only requires a "mere measurement" to test can be reluctant to cede ownership of any part of that hypothesis to the person doing the measurement, no matter how intellectually challenging the measurement. Current mechanisms for the assessment of grants and personalities sometimes encourage this dog-in-the-manger behaviour of not rewarding collaboration appropriately. But at the SuperSTEM facility, we are fortunate in being right at the cutting edge of our area, so almost everything we do is new both for the measurement technique and the science around the sample-protecting us from encountering that slightly snooty attitude.

In any case, this post has been a wonderful opportunity for me. When I finished my undergraduate degree, I had trouble deciding between a PhD in "muddy boots" ecology and in experimental solid-state physics, so a huge attraction to this job is the breadth of science I am exposed to--from biology (studying the structure of membrane proteins) through semiconductor science via the latest supermaterials for jet engines back to scientific archaeology (analysing tree-ring samples for the presence of volcanic eruptions). For each sample I have had to learn enough about the surrounding science to do the correct measurements and advise on sample preparation. It is the perfect justification for being a scientific butterfly.

In addition to doing research, an important component of my job is generating interest from the scientific community and, far from inevitably, money to support the facility in the medium term. We have 5 years of funding but we need to prove ourselves by developing a "client base" as well as by doing good science. The two are inseparable--good science attracts clients and collaborators along with more challenging samples, which themselves lead to more interesting results, and so on. Thus, working at Daresbury made me more business aware and the way in which I think now is getting more commercial--for example I now see the talks I give at conferences as a way of marketing our facility

But everything comes at a price, and going for this job required a significant commitment on my part and on the part of my partner. I left a full-time academic post and college fellowship at Cambridge University and moved from a settled house and community of friends in Cambridge to the wilds on the edge of the West Pennine moors. I do miss our friends and I miss teaching. Having said that, I don't miss the grind associated with teaching courses and certainly not the soul-destroying grind of applying for grants and having them rejected. But I would not have contemplated leaving my academic post in Cambridge had the university not been extremely generous and understanding and allowed me a 5-year secondment to take up this exciting but uncertain post. I say uncertain here because we have to prove ourselves to the community and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) within the 5-year duration of the grant. And this is without mentioning that at the beginning of the project we didn't know how things would work out or even if they would work at all!

Still, I'm very pleased to have made the change. It has definitely been a huge plus for my career. The change in the way I'm perceived by the community is tangible--I have gone from maybe one invited talk a year to almost one a month. People sometimes ask me if I am to come back to academia after this post. The truth is, I really don't know--so much depends on how my current job develops. Once the facility is fully set-up and running I guess my role may be more of an administrator's and I think I'll be neither particularly good nor satisfied in that role. On the other hand, I hope this lab will become a focus for further instrumentation development and then I could see myself staying on to continue the progress. There is also the possibility of doing something similar in another country--but then the "two body problem" kicks in--will my partner find a post as well?

But for now at the SuperSTEM facility we believe we can solve your problems if you wish us to--microscopy problems that is!

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