Inspiring The Next Generation

Cather Simpson went to university to become a neurosurgeon, but found herself drawn to maths and physics instead. “Some people just 
like maths,” she says. “There’s a sort
 of internal and aesthetic satisfaction that comes from solving an equation, or describing some physical system, using what you know about maths and physics.” By the time she graduated with her PhD in Medical Sciences from the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, Cather had shifted her focus from research into receptor recycling
 in immune responses to the way light interacts with molecules. Cather is
 now director of the Photon Factory, an advanced, multi-user pulsed laser facility in the Faculty of Science at The University of Auckland where she also holds co- appointments in the School of Chemical Sciences and Department of Physics. She continues to research the photochemistry and photophysics of molecules, and the way femtosecond (ultra-short) laser pulses can change molecular structures. This is a long way from neurosurgery. “I think I would have been a terrible doctor,” she says. She recalls a staged consultation when she was a medical student, in which she was required to diagnose the illness of a patient, in this instance, a teenage boy. “Of course it wasn’t real – the patients were actors – so this isn’t as bad as it sounds, but I’d done the physical examination and the consultation, and this patient came in
to get his diagnosis, and I said to him ‘Oh, this is so cool! You have the rarest leukemia.’ The look on his face made
 me realise what I’d just said. I was more attracted to the idea of the mechanism, of the leukemia, and had lost sight of the fact that I was talking to a real person that had a terminal disease … it did make me realise that being a practicing doctor would probably not be the best career choice for me.” A medical degree and a BA in Interdisciplinary Studies, which included subjects such as Greek civilization, and Bertolt Brecht, may not have been the best prerequisites for a career in maths. However, a Department of Energy Postdoctoral Fellowship (extremely hard to win, and also lucrative) at Sandia National Labs helped her catch up. For two years, she spent time working in various labs across the United States; In Los Alamos to learn about ultrafast lasers; at Pacific Northwestern Labs to learn about parallel computing; and at the Quantum Theory Project in Florida to learn about large molecules. “I remember I showed up [in Florida] and they gave me my computer password and it was Big Molecule, because I was studying a molecule that had three atoms in it.” Following her fellowship, she took
 up a job as Assistant Professor in the Chemistry Department at private research university Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, to pursue research in femtosecond phenomena in the liquid phase. A move to Auckland
in 2007 found Cather responsible
for a more diverse range of students, demanding her to reassess her approach to teaching. “Yeah, that was probably the biggest challenge I had; figuring
out how to keep the really bright ones engaged and challenged, and also how to teach the ones in the middle what they needed to know to go where they wanted to go, and then to identify the ones at the bottom, so they could move up,” she recalls. The reassessment paid dividends: last year she was one of eight staff members at the University of Auckland to receive an Excellence in Teaching award, where she was cited for her “approachable and entertaining manner” and her ability “to inspire students to look past the simple explanations for a deeper understanding of a topic”. Teaching, she says, is a great part of the job. “I work at a university because I love it. There are two things I get to do; to find new knowledge, and to have an impact on the next generation via interacting with students.” She’s even done the maths: 
“I calculated that I lecture to about 1200 students a year, so if I finish up my career in New Zealand I will have taught one percent of the entire population in New Zealand by the time I retire.”

“I work at a university because I love it. There are two things I get to do; to find new knowledge, and to have an impact on the next generation via interacting with students.”

This, she laughs, is “a weird thing to think about.” However: “People think science is great, and scientists do all this marvelous stuff, but they aren’t usually 
the ones that run countries. They don’t usually deal with social justice. They aren’t the ones that make sure poor people have enough food to eat, or that our laws make sense. So if I can help those people who are doing other things learn about science so they can make informed decisions, so they can understand the impact that science can have, I think that’s an extraordinary opportunity. That gives me goosebumps.” The Photon Factory is a modern multi- user laser facility, unique in Australasia
in that it provides high tech laser pulses in a multi-user environment for a wide range of applications – from spectroscopy to microfabrication and micromachining. Opening in 2010, it has more than 25 researchers from the disciplines of chemistry, physics, and engineering.
“Our mission is to bring the power and versatility of high-tech, short laser pulses to academics, Crown Research Institutes and industry innovators in New Zealand.” Last year Cather and her team were awarded $7.68 million in the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s (MBIE) science investment round. This funding will be used in three complementary research areas. “One is making laser machining more effective, using what we know about physics. The second is figuring out ways to design and make new lasers, to do machining. The third is to develop new laser machining materials.” Ultra-short laser pulses can be a few millionths of a billionth of a second
in length, and can be used for myriad purposes, such as improving touch-screen technology, developing less expensive air-quality sensors and creating better-performing GPS chips. Cather’s team has produced a device
 for sperm selection in agriculture, using microfluidic technology to manipulate
and sort the sperm for the artificial insemination of cows, sheep and cattle,
in a way that avoids the more damaging steps in the current ‘flow-cytometry’ approach and therefore is more cost- effective. The device is being patented and developed by spin-off company Engender Technologies. The Photon Factory is also working with US medical company Intuitive Surgical, which specialises in robotic surgery, to help develop laser technology for use in bone surgery to try and reduce the damage caused by conventional laser surgery. Perhaps one of the more novel, and less commercial, research projects she and her team has worked on is one in which they collaborated with Stage 3 English students enrolled in a paper called Poetry off the Page. The project involved the use of laser machinery to inscribe microscopic-sized stanzas of ‘Shadow Stands Up’, by current Poet Laureate Ian Wedde, onto ten objects referenced in the poem. This included
 a bus pass, a watch, a cork, and even a paua shell. “The science in this for us was learning how to use our laser pulses to make clean microscopic features in such diverse media. And it was an intellectual stretch to work with the arts students and professors–and lots of fun.” Cather is comfortable bridging the long-standing divide between arts and science; she lectures in a Stage 2 English paper called Literature and Science which, among other topics, discusses the use of metaphor in science and scientific metaphor in literature. She says that while there was far more pressure to do applied science (as distinct from pure research) in New Zealand than in the States, there are bonuses to that. For instance, she probably wouldn’t be  working with a US company specialising 
in surgical robots if she hadn’t been based here. “If I had never moved here I would never have met the chief medical officer who was visiting New Zealand to talk about using our science to aid their technology. She wouldn’t have heard of my work, we wouldn’t have talked to each other. And now we’re at the point where, if it works, in two years something that we discover might actually be helping real live people.” “My definition of success before I moved to New Zealand was ‘maybe I’ll understand something that nobody did before and I can contribute something that was new knowledge … but now we have all these other ways that we get our jolt of positive energy.” Cather was appointed as a principal investigator to the MacDiarmid Institute this year. She’s looking forward to connecting more with other like-minded scientists. “When I think about the MacDiarmid Institute, I don’t actually think about the facilities but about the people. It’s a really great opportunity, because the people there are not just dedicated to the science, but to making New Zealand a better place. I like that. I call that living your values.”  


Cather Simpson Associate Professor at the University Of Auckland

  • Has a BA from the University of Virginia’s College of Arts and Sciences and aPhD in Medical Sciences from the University of New Mexico School of Medicine.
  • Director of the Photon Factory,
  • Director of the University’s Dan Walls Centre for Pure and Applied Optics.
  • Research interests: Using lasers to study the ultrafast chemical and physical reactions of molecules to light.
  • Awards: In 2012 her team was awarded $7.68 million over four years in the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s (MBIE) science investment round, to advance laser machining and microfabrication technology. This year they were awarded $50,000 in the Callaghan Commercialisation Fellowship for commercially driven research for the dairy Industry. Also awarded the Sustained Excellence in Teaching Award in 2012 and the Dean’s Award for Teaching Excellence.