The Inspiration of The Doctor

We can thank the Third Doctor for Simon Granville’s career choices. Simon always thought that he’d like to be a diplomat or a scientist —but watching Jon Pertwee play about with interesting gadgets and technology on Doctor Who swung his decision in science’s favour.  The exhaustive Wikipedia entry for the Third Doctor describes him as a ‘suave, dapper, technologically oriented, and authoritative man of action … a keen scientist’—obviously highly compelling stuff to a kid weighing up career choices! Simon’s career has been significantly shaped by a number of forces: the compelling image of the dapper Doctor, with his yellow roadster Bessie, shouting at his companion to ‘reverse the polarity of the neutron flow’; the intervention, at several critical points, of Emeritus Professor Joe Trodahl; the MacDiarmid Institute itself; the links and ties and networks Simon has made since that third-year solid state physics class in 2000. So Simon’s story is one that revolves around both the individual impact of Joe Trodahl, and the collective impact of the then new Centre of Research Excellence, the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology. Simon’s ability to return to the Institute as an associate investigator is in no large part influenced by the people there, who remained connected to him during his post-doctorate and subsequent international job hunt. He recalls first engaging with Joe in that third-year solid state physics class: “I asked a lot of questions, none of which I thought were very clever, and was offered a summer scholarship.” This took place out at the old IRL campus (Industrial Research Limited) in Lower Hutt—meaning that the undergrad Simon came into contact with the likes of Bob Buckley and Jeff Tallon. At this stage, however, Simon was only really doing physics because he was good at it—he’d not yet had that eureka moment in which the transformative way in which physics shapes one’s worldview becomes a critical motivating force. Physics as the main way of seeing snuck up on Simon—a pool game that became a set of forces and angles and geometry, being involved in research projects that were entirely experimental, then working with thin film materials and being intrigued that these unassuming surface materials held so much scope and potential. “We were probing the mysteries, thinking on levels I’d never thought of before.” Simon did another summer project with Joe and John Kennedy in the summer of 2001–2002, and then on to a PhD supervised by Joe and Ben Ruck, who were by this stage principal investigators with the MacDiarmid Institute, which had been established in the initial CoRE funding round in 2002. Simon was thus one of the inaugural MacDiarmid PhD students—investigating thin films of magnetic nitrides. He was playing round with semi-conducting nitrides: “while the materials themselves were not particularly exciting, the experimental techniques were diverse.”  A landmark theoretical paper[1] came out while he was in the middle of his PhD, and at that point he became involved in the unusual nitrides work that Joe Trodahl was doing with Ben Ruck. “I was still involved with the same materials, but the theoretical framework had changed.” By the end of 2006, PhD completed, Simon headed to Lausanne on a post-doctoral fellowship at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne—he was keen to put to use the languages (French and Spanish) that he’d taken throughout his undergraduate degree. Having done his PhD at the same university he’d done undergrad at, Simon was increasingly aware that he needed exposure to other labs, other techniques, different equipment. Working in the Laboratory of the Physics of Nanostructured Materials, under the supervision of Professor Jean-Philippe Ansermet, he was working with magnetism—creating nanowires of magnetic materials—and in spintronics. Since it was a university-funded postdoctoral position, he was able to stay for four years, and was critically involved in looking after the equipment in the laboratory, including the SQUID magnetometer. But after four years in the lab, one of those spent simultaneously looking for a job in the post-Global Financial-Crisis market, Bob Buckley emailed him about an upcoming position in the Superconductivity and Energy team at what was then still IRL. This contact didn’t come out of the blue—Simon’s PhD supervisor, Joe Trodahl, had been in regular contact with him during his postdoc. Simon describes this as being back within his ‘academic family’—his research in magnetic materials and sensors, which seeks to develop thin film magnetic sensors with a variety of applications, has critical links to the work that Joe and Ben Ruck do on rare-earth nitride thin films, linking him back to the techniques and materials he utilised in his PhD research. Given the importance of the people of the MacDiarmid Institute to Simon’s development as a scholar and experimentalist, it seems entirely appropriate that he credits Joe Trodahl with encouraging him to apply for associate investigator status at his alma mater—and as Simon puts it, he was ‘really quite chuffed’ to be invited into the academic family that has had so much impact on his scientific career. Joe Trodahl and Doctor Who—those are some good role models. Simon can be found discussing science, the universe and everything on Twitter @DrSciMan