Off to my son's sports day so won't be able to answer any questions until after the evictions - vote for me and I'll still be able to answer them! ;)
Favourite Thing: That “Aha!” moment when something you’ve been trying to understand for ages just clicks.
Penair School, Truro 1980-1985; Truro School 1985-1987; St Austell VI Form College 1987-1988
I did a degree in music at King’s College London (1988-1991) before deciding to be a scientist instead! Then I did a part-time degree in Physics at Birkbeck College and University College London (1992-1998), followed by a PhD at University College London (1998-2002)
I worked during my undergraduate degree at the BBC and the Cancer Research Campaign (now CRUK). After my PhD I worked as a researcher at the Ecole Polytechnique just outside Paris before moving back to the UK for my current job.
University of York
Postdoctoral Researcher (part time jobshare)
Me and my work
I work out how electronic devices consisting of a single molecule work by writing computer code.
I work in nanotechnology – I study the behaviour of tiny objects consisting of just a few hundred atoms, and just a few nanometers across. A nanometer is one billionth of a metre – that’s really tiny, about 1/10,000th the width of an average human hair! At these sizes, things don’t behave how you’d expect them to – we are in the weird and wonderful world of quantum mechanics, where things start to behave very strangely. For example, light can behave as both a particle and a wave, depending on how you look at it, and the more we know about how fast something is going, the less we can know about where it is! It’s very strange, and very counter-intuitive, but the mathematics of quantum mechanics works very well as a description of what happens, and I use this mathematics to write computer code to perform virtual experiments.
In particular, I investigate how the way electrons (tiny particles that are electrically charged) travel through nanoscale objects is affected by the way they interact with vibrations and light. This is technologically important as electronic devices are getting smaller and smaller and may soon be using nanoscale components! You can see an example of the kind of system I study in the picture below:
The little spheres represent atoms, which are always jiggling around and vibrating, We can send an electric current through the atoms, in the form of some electrons, and look at how the vibrations change the way the electrons behave. Instead of doing all of this with real atoms and molecules in a lab though, I use a computer, which adds to the understanding we have of these systems from experimental results. You can see a short video made by some of my colleagues (and featuring a “blink and you miss it” appearance by me!) to explain more about what we do here – it was made to advertise our work to other scientists but I think it’s a good introduction.
My Typical Day
Read stuff, coffee, code stuff, coffee, calculate stuff, coffee, chocolate.
I jobshare with my husband, who is also a physicist, and usually I work mornings while he works in the afternoons. Sometimes I go straight to work, sometimes I take my son to school first. I’m lucky enough to live within walking distance so I use the time to compile a mental to-do list for the day. I usually start work by reading and answering emails and checking to see what new research papers have been published. I do lots of computer calculations that take a long time (days or even weeks!) so I check to see how they’re going, write new bits of computer code and spend a lot of time analysing the results and trying to figure out what they mean! At the moment we have lots of results to write up into research articles for publication in scientific journals so I try and spend some time each day writing. The afternoons vary – some days my younger son is at nursery which means my husband is also in the office so we can work together, other days I leave at lunchtime and spend the afternoons playing with my kids!
What I'd do with the money
I’d set up a website to introduce quantum mechanics to primary school children.
Quantum mechanics is fundamental to physics but it’s usually only taught long after we’ve formed our ideas about the world and its reality, which makes it conceptually really difficult to understand. In our world, for example, if you throw a ball at a solid wall then you know it will always bounce back, but in the quantum world there’s a chance it will pass straight through the wall! One of my undergraduate lecturers always thought that if the fundamentals were introduced to primary-age children it would actually be much easier to understand. I’d like to use the money to see if this was true, but also I think it would be lots of fun for the kids!
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Mostly cheerful geek.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
My tastes are quite diverse – but I really like Gogol Bordello and The Wedding Present, as well as folky stuff like Joan Baez and Billy Bragg, and still enjoy listening to classical music even though I don’t have time to play much any more.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Playing Shostakovich symphonies in a really big orchestra – louder than any rock concert I’ve ever been to!
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
1) For my children to sleep better at night so I can sleep too! 2) For both my husband and I to get good science jobs with permanent contracts in the same place 3) to have 36 hours in every day!
What did you want to be after you left school?
A chemist – I actually found physics at school a bit dull, but it does get better!
Were you ever in trouble at school?
No – I was a real goody two-shoes! I did once get into trouble for flicking ink at someone during a German lesson, but that was about it.
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
Going to a conference in California to present the results from my PhD
Tell us a joke.
Q: What goes “oink, 3.14159, oink, 3.14159, oink, 3.14159”? A: A pork pi!