Just a Few Words of Encouragement

 Elf Eldridge describes his unusually rocky road to physics research, his burgeoning career as a science communicator, and the immense impact MacDiarmid researchers have had on his life.

Kia ora, I’m Elf – or ‘technically’ James Alexis Eldridge. I wasn’t a great student at high school, scraping through most of my subjects apart from English.

Since I was five, I wanted to become a vet and to fix the animals that I had grown up with. So I went to study veterinary science at Massey Palmerston North in 2005, but my marks weren’t good enough to get into vet school. However, I had done some physics and biochemistry by then and had fallen in love with them, so I switched majors and transferred to Victoria.

Doing physics was tough and I gave it up at 200 level, after almost failing the course, and changed my degree. By mid 2008 I was almost ready to give up on science; I had failed or almost failed a number of papers, and was constantly bottom of the class in every assignment and test. I realised at that point that as I probably could never get a job in science, I should quit university and get an internship somewhere so that I had some career prospects.

Howard and Michele to the Rescue

Then came Howard Lukefahr. I needed money while all this failure was going on, and thanks to him, began demonstrating 100 level physics labs and doing outreach with him. The blind leading the blind, you’re thinking. But actually, those who find these subjects hardest may be the best teachers. Howard was the first person at university EVER to tell me I was good at anything. Meeting him had a profound impact on me and on my career. I will be eternally indebted to him. Thanks to Howard, I decided to stay on and attempt honours, which I completed in 2009 (scraping through second class). However, honours courses taught me that the only way I could possibly keep pace with the other physicists was to work harder and so I began to push myself. During that year I was headhunted by Te Ropu Awhina to assist with 100 level chemistry help sessions, and ended up finding the whanau and support system I sorely lacked in earlier years.

I was lucky enough to get a summer internship with Dr Michele Governale (despite again coming bottom of the class in the honours paper he taught and almost failing the exam), who ended up convincing me that I was capable of doing a PhD, and I stayed at university for one more year and in 2010 completed a Graduate Diploma in Cell and Molecular Bioscience. I also began working at Carter Observatory thanks to Howard’s outreach contacts.

During that year I researched possible PhDs that interested me from around the world. When one opened up with the MacDiarmid Institute, I jumped at the chance and at the topic – bio-nanotechnology – which had become a great passion of mine. I applied for it and was lucky enough to be accepted. I would not have been able to get a scholarship, supervisor or acceptance by any university without the MacDiarmid Institute’s backing. I began my PhD in November 2010 under the supervision of Dr Geoff Willmott, an experimental physicist based at Industrial Research Limited.

My research focuses on using the Izon qNano, a nanoparticle measurement apparatus manufactured by Izon science in Christchurch, to detect the charge of nanoparticles.

Geoff encouraged me to apply for MESA, the MacDiarmid Institute’s Emerging Scientists Association – a group of PhD students and postdocs who want to get the most out of their time with the Institute. From there, everything exploded. I started working to generate resources for the website, organising seminars on interesting topics, and recording and posting them online. Thanks to Deputy Director Shaun Hendy and the MESA Chairperson, Natalie Plank, I was offered a blogging spot at the sciblogs (Science Media Centre) website to talk about nanoscience and astronomy and, along with Aimee Whitcroft, began planning and producing their weekly general science podcast, TOSP, the first of its kind in New Zealand.

I was asked to present at the Pecha Kucha Science night in February 2011 where I spoke about the importance of whanau in science and about viral nanotechnology. From there I was invited to join Kiwispace, New Zealand’s space science network, which has ended up in me producing the series global podcast for World Space Week in 2011. My Kiwispace contacts also got me involved with the FutureinTech programme where scientists visit schools and talk about their careers. On one of my recent visits, a student asked me if it was all worth it. And with great pride I was able to able to look him straight in the eyes and say unequivocally “Yes!” Every sleepless night, every stress-induced tear, every missed date and birthday and sunny day that I’ve stared at longingly from inside. Because, when you love what you do as much as I do, there’s nothing in this world that could possibly compare. And I wouldn’t have had access to any of it without the support from the people of the MacDiarmid Institute!