One Day in the Life – Profiles of three extraordinary PhD students – Rueben Mendelsberg, Sam Yu and Phill Anderson
Rueben Mendelsberg speaks with a distinct Denver accent. He wears a manaia-shaped greenstone around his neck and celebrates Yom Kippur. He rides a unicycle, fishes for trout and loves lasers.
About fifteen years ago, his art professor father brought one home as an objet d’art. It was a plastic plug-in model: one foot long and four inches in diameter. “I loved the black and red patterns it made,” Mendelsberg says. “We could point it at the neighbour’s house and still see it, something you can’t do with a flashlight. Since then, I’ve always been into lasers.”
Twenty-three year old Mendelsberg is now using lasers to design better lasers in Canterbury University’s physics department. He moved to New Zealand five years ago to meet his Ngati Kahungunu grandparents and pursue an undergraduate degree. He chose Christchurch because he wanted to snowboard and study where his father taught fine arts thirty years ago. In 2006, he graduated with a first class honours degree and earned a Canterbury Scholarship to fund his PhD studies with Associate Professor Roger Reeves.
Wanting to focus on fundamental research, Mendelsberg chose to apply a technique called eclipse pulsed laser deposition to grow zinc oxide crystals on sapphire substrates. “It works the way water condenses on the mirror when you take a shower except the result is a thin layer of zinc oxide crystals instead of water droplets,” he explains. “The crystals look like rods and hexagonal shaped pyramids. I call them nanohexamids—a word I’m pretty sure I invented.”
Mendelsberg says that one day these heat-tolerant zinc oxide chips may be used for solar cells, DVDs, flat-panel displays, gas sensors and high-efficiency lasers because they conduct electricity and absorb and emit ultraviolet (UV) light. But rather than developing the chips for specific uses, he’s more interested in understanding their fundamental properties.
Currently, he’s trying to figure out the lowest dose of laser light needed to make the highest level of light emitted by the crystals. So far, he’s found that the eclipse laser technique he developed produces better light-emitting crystals than standard techniques, but he’s not sure why. “Ultimately my goal is to mathematically link the crystals’ properties to the environment they were grown in,” he says. “I hope to explain why the nanohexamids form as opposed to countless other possibilities.”
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During the past six years, Canterbury University chemistry PhD student Sam Yu established an international reputation for his research on carbon chips. He has published his work in American, English and Japanese journals and participated in material science conferences in New Zealand, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore.
In 2005, he was awarded Japan’s Excellent Young Researcher award in surface science and nanotechnology. New Zealand’s Tertiary Education Commission labeled Yu a top achiever in doctoral scholarship and is currently funding his postgraduate studies and conference travels. “My goal is to advance materials science and further develop nanotechnology,” he says. “I’ve been fortunate enough to work with Associate Professor Alison Downard, a principal investigator in the MacDiarmid Institute, who shares my passion.”
Gold and silicon-based chips are the standards in the nano-electronics industry. Yu says it is looking for new techniques and new materials to increasingly push technological boundaries. He believes the new technology may rely on carbon substrates. They are cheaper, more versatile and more robust than gold and silicon, he explains. Although his carbon chip design recently graced the cover of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s New Journal of Chemistry, Yu says, “scientists have not given them that much attention.”
While this puts Yu on the cutting edge of nanotechnology research, the relative lack of publications on carbon chip chemistry has been his biggest challenge. “Silicon and gold chips’ chemical properties do not necessarily apply to carbon chips”, he says. So he began studying chemical reactions on carbon platforms integrated with gold nano-particles and silicon.
He gradually moved to studying carbon platforms on their own and is now working out how to manipulate their surface chemistry with ultra-violet radiation to make them bind to and measure secondary substances. The platforms would work in a similar fashion to urinalysis dipsticks, which measure glucose, protein and other metabolites by colour change.
Clinical diagnostics, drug delivery and nano-circuit design are potential uses for carbon substrates. Yu calls this “click-on chemistry,” where a vast array of molecules can be applied, or clicked on to a carbon chip for a myriad of applications. He chose ultraviolet radiation techniques to develop click-on chemistry because it’s relatively cheap and easy to use in mass production.
It’s not surprising that Yu plans to exploit his knowledge and experimental skills for commercial applications after graduation in December 2007. “I’m thinking about how to leap into the real world,” he says. He is currently enrolled in a course on commercial-academic collaborations, which brings together industry executives and university scientists to help scientists find practical applications of their fundamental research. “For me, it’s important to step back, listen to industry experts and further develop what I’ve learned at the postgraduate level,” he says.
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Can four lads from small town Whakatane, New Zealand – disorganised, ill prepared and inexperienced motorcyclists, drive the length of the African Continent, 20,000km from Cape Town to Tunisia?
Apparently they can. And that is exactly what Phill Anderson, nanotechnologist, financial modeller and true kiwi bloke did with three school friends from Whakatane. On farm bikes “most people wouldn’t ride to the cow shed” they traversed the African Continent, crossed the Mediterranean Sea, Italy, France and the English Channel and rode on unperturbed through the wind and rain to London, filming their adventure as they went.
While his friends are back in New Zealand editing the footage into a documentary film to pitch to TVNZ, Phill has stayed in London for his big OE.
Before embarking on his ‘African Odyssey’ Phill spent seven years in the Department of Electrical Engineering at Canterbury University exploring the intricacies of the atomic world in their MacDiarmid funded nanotechnology lab. This was my excuse for interviewing him.
Out of all the 1579 square kilometres of London, Phill happened to live a couple of minutes down the road from me. We agreed to meet at a pub on my cycle ride home. I walked in, late, cycle helmet under one arm, fluoro safety vest over the other and there he was, smartly suited and clean shaven with a beer in his hand. Not the scruffy bearded traveller I had imagined but with Africa all washed off he was now looking for a finance job in London and had just been to an interview.
From our coincidentally close abodes to our conversation about Africa, I got the impression that the world conspires to stay small for Kiwis. Although the African Odyssey was fraught with potential dangers and disasters, from having a bike (and very almost a leg) run over by a reversing truck to being chased off a hillside by angry gun flailing Ethiopians, on the whole Phill and his friends met with warm welcomes. And, it made a difference being a Kiwi.
“We had painted flags all over our bikes” he said “I think there’s generally heaps of good will towards New Zealanders. There is definitely a lot of anti US and anti British sentiment but we didn’t seem to get lumped into that. We met so many local people and that’s definitely the thing that sticks in your head about it. Anywhere we ended up, as helpless as we might have been there was always someone to help you out and get you on your way.”
Before the trip none of the team had ridden motorcycles so it was a steep learning curve. The bikes broke down but they learnt to fix them with whatever they could find. With no guide they went with the wind (provided it blew roughly north and not into a war-zone or hippopotamus). It took them over the endless sands of the Sahara, through the poverty stricken villages of Malawi and along the Nile. They watched the moon rise over the salt plains of Botswana, fled election trouble in Zambia and camped in game reserves waking up to find lion footprints outside their tents.
I asked Phill if they got in trouble and after shaking his head he casually recounted the time they were chased away from the ruins of a castle in the middle of Ethiopia by a crowd of locals shaking guns at them and shouting.
“Wasn’t that scary?” I asked “Yeah, a little bit” he admitted “but we never really thought they were going to do anything. What it boiled down to is that they wanted us to give them money for visiting their castle. We just kind of didn’t pay them and went on our way.”
On arrival in London Phil and his friends rode straight to a big welcome party where Phill met someone who wanted to buy his bike. He sold it then and there and hasn’t ridden since. He feels it’s time to settle down and find a proper job.
Phill’s PhD was in molecular beam epitaxy (MBE) – building highly ordered layers of materials atom by atom onto substrates to use in electronic devices like LED’s (light emitting diodes) and lasers. As part of Steve Durbin’s group he was working on a hot topic at the forefront of world research. Thanks to the MacDiarmid Institute, their lab in the Canterbury Engineering Department was kitted out with the most up to date equipment and they were able to attend conferences all over the world. Phill focused on a material called Indium Nitride that recently emerged as a very efficient emitter of infrared light. If Indium Nitride technology is developed to the level of other known light emitting materials they could be alloyed together to produce any colour light from the infrared to ultraviolet – one of the holy grails of optical-electronics.
Phill loved every minute of his PhD but because it was so specialised it’s almost impossible to find a job in the same area. “Especially in New Zealand” he said, “you can’t even go into a related field. There’s the government labs like Industrial Research Limited or universities but there’s not really any substantial industry for superconductors or nanotechnology. The next stage is turning some of that interesting research into some interesting companies which would add something of value to NZ but that’s always the most difficult part.”
I asked Phill if he was up to the challenge and he said that in five to ten years (when the novelty of London has worn off and all his friends have gone home) he would like to return to New Zealand perhaps to start a business in the line of his PhD. For now, however, he is young, free and moving into finance, where the pay packets are large and the market wide.
“I’m not above selling my soul for the right amount of money.” he joked “Plenty of time to be responsible later in life!”
“If you go onto a London job board” he told me “and do a search for your PhD, all the jobs which come up will be finance jobs. You won’t find any actual science jobs which people are advertising for with PhD’s. All the banks and hedge funds just want people who have got PhD’s in numerical subjects.”
The pull towards finance is strong but in the end Phill says he will always see New Zealand as home and nothing quite beats the attraction and adventure of science.
I asked Phill if he had any adventures planned for the next few years.
“I’ve always had this idea that I might sail a boat home” he replied “but we’ll wait and see. I don’t know how to sail yet. You’d have to be the captain I reckon. That’d be more fun. Then you could sail yourself home.”
A couple of weeks later I rode past Phill on my way to work and stopped to say hello. He was just about to start his new job in finance.