Just Do It

Nanotechnology professor Jeremy Baumberg's approach to science has always been hands-on. "I was the sort of child who took everything apart," he says. Even before he entered college, he worked for computer giant IBM, writing software among "mainframe computers and clunky PCs." A couple of years later, while working on his undergraduate degree in physics at the University of Cambridge, he worked for the U.K.'s former Central Electric Generating Board. "I was always interested in practical problems and their connections to engineering," he says.

Throughout his training and his young career, Baumberg (pictured left) has always sought to make connections among research disciplines, and--just as important--he has sought environments that support his openness, curiosity, and broad interest in science. Jeremy Allam, Baumberg's former boss at the Hitachi Cambridge Laboratory in the U.K., says that Baumberg "doesn't like to put things in compartments; he likes to see connections. Unlike some scientists, he seems to be equally happy to engage in basic and applied science, and to explore how they cross-fertilise each other." Consequently, Allam says, Baumberg discovers things that others might not. The result: a successful research career in nanophotonics that spans the divide between academia and industry.

Sink or swim

After finishing his undergraduate degree in 1988, Baumberg moved to Oxford to work on a Ph.D. investigating how semiconductors react to short pulses of light. He loved working in the lab; the work was challenging--a "real struggle," he says. "It was one of those Ph.D.s where you either sink or swim." But the experience helped him gain confidence by "knowing I could solve things for myself." He stayed afloat.

In 1991, Baumberg won a Junior Research Fellowship, which gave him funding to pursue postdoctoral work at Oxford for 3 years. A year later, he put the postdoc on hold to take up an IBM fellowship working with physicist David Awschalom at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In Awschalom's lab, Baumberg learned a lot of science, but what really stuck was the proactive mindset he encountered in Awschalom and his other colleagues--what he calls "that American 'just do it' " attitude." The attitude mated well with his enthusiasm and broad outlook. "Just do it" became a permanent part of his professional approach.

The right environment

Baumberg returned to Oxford to continue his Junior Research Fellowship, but he soon became frustrated by what he calls the "insulated territories" he perceived in Oxford departments. After his formative experience abroad, he found that at Oxford, "enthusiasm for trying new things was blunted." So 6 months later, he left Oxford to take up a research position at the newly established Hitachi Cambridge laboratory, an industrial lab based in Cambridge University's Microelectronics Research Centre. Allam recalls that when he interviewed Baumberg for the job, he was struck by how "highly energetic and authoritative he was. I was convinced he could do a lot."

At Hitachi, Baumberg pursued a combination of blue-sky and applied research. The Hitachi lab was a good match, "one of the most far-sighted organisations I have worked for," he says. What particularly impressed him was the "long-range nature of research there. I did do some short-range technology projects, but I was also able pursue things for myself."

The Hitachi lab nurtured Baumberg's "just do it" attitude; he learned to take risks, work hard, and follow his own scientific interests. "I tried new things and realised if you worked hard enough at it, you always got things to work; then you're just limited by your own imagination and not anything else."

Jeremy Baumberg: a nanotechnologist at work

Trusting your instincts

"I found I worked late at night because I wanted to know the answer to 'What did nature do in this case?'--not because I could I publish it. My own interests and curiosity were driving me." And he learned to trust his instincts. Gradually, he says, "I found that I didn't need to follow current trends as much. I became a bit more trusting of my own judgments, a bit more trusting that my own curiosity would take me directions that other people might find interesting as well." He worked on many projects, frequently collaborating with universities. Allam was struck by Baumberg's ability to "identify interesting areas which are likely to yield important results and involve himself in several areas of research--sometimes quite different from each other--at the same time." At Hitachi, says Allam, Baumberg also "cultivated links with other scientists and scientific institutions which turned out to be highly productive."

Baumberg stayed at Hitachi for 5 years, but toward the end of his time there he became frustrated with his academic collaborations. At U.K. universities, he found, "there seemed to be one gatekeeper" who controlled and sanctioned collaborations between the university and industry. "I was a bit of a loose cannon," he says. "I wanted to collaborate with lots of different groups, and that seemed to be politically difficult."

So he sought a new position at a major electronic industrial lab in the United States. But during this time, he was recruited by U.K. universities. He interviewed at several institutions, and the University of Southampton impressed him most. "The barriers between people were very low here. I talked to a variety of people, and they all had that 'Yeah, let's just do it' type of attitude." Moving to academia was, he recalls, "the hardest decision I ever made. I knew it is a long-term choice. I had no idea if I could survive in U.K. academia."

Industry to academia

He didn't just survive; he thrived. In 2001, he and several other colleagues at Southampton founded a spinoff company-- Mesophotonics--exploiting some of the applications of his work. He is still involved in the company as a consultant. But these days, Baumberg devotes most of this time and energy to academic pursuits, and collaboration is still the hallmark of his approach to science. In Southampton, he says, he interacts with at least 30 researchers in many different departments, "connecting people who are doing really good things independently but could really work more together." One result was the establishment of an umbrella group for nanotechnology--the Nano Portal at Southampton.

Baumberg fosters collaborations using a carrot instead of a stick. "I'm not forcing people to do anything, just bribing them," he says. With university funding behind him, Baumberg approaches colleagues in various departments with this proposition: "If you work on this with so-and-so, I'll fund a student to work with you." From a small investment--"to prime things like vacation studentships"--the payoff can be impressive, he says: "People start doing things together and realise, 'Wow, this is very powerful,' and then they put in a grant application and get huge amounts of money."

Baumberg believes that "making connections in science" is where the vibrancy comes from. But the right environment is also essential. "The really important thing is finding the right people. You have to trust your gut instincts for that." Early-career researchers should get out and talk to potential employers and colleagues, he says. Sometimes he gets the "feeling from discussions that people are really open to doing things" and "that this is a place that you can be creative." Sometimes he gets a different feeling. He has always followed those feelings in choosing where to work.

Baumberg advises young researchers to do the same. They should ask themselves, "If you have an idea, are people open to it? Would the person you are working for let you do that? If you find yourself in an arena where it's not like that, then you have to leave. If the people around you aren't making your day-to-day existence a good one, you will not prosper."

Anne Forde is European editor North and East for Science 's Next Wave.

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