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.)
|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.|
|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 …|
|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.
# 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.