Favourite Thing: I love working with other people on a brand new problem, and the excitement you feel when you suddenly have an idea that just feels right! And then the satisfaction when you find out that you actually are… unfortunately it doesn’t always happen that way, so you have to enjoy the few times it does.
Redwoodtown School, 1980-1985. Bohally Intermediate 1986-1987. Marlborough Boys’ College 1988-1992.
I studied physics at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand 1993-1997, and the University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom 1997-2001.
I started out at the University of Oxford in 2001, moved to the University of Queensland in 2002, and I have been here ever since!
School of Mathematics and Physics at the University of Queenland in Brisbane.
I do research in quantum physics, supervise other staff and students on research projects, and lecture physics to uni students.
Me and my work
I carry out research in theoretical quantum physics, and teach physics to uni students.
My job has two main components – research and teaching.
My research area is theoretical quantum physics – in particular, the behaviour of extremely dilute gases when they are cooled down to billionths of a degree above absolute zero. At such cold temperatures they exhibit fascinating and potentially useful properties such as superfluidity. I work with a team of other staff and students on a number of problems in this area.
Currently I teach physics to students in their first year at university – I plan the course, deliver lectures, and coordinate and supervise laboratories. We teach the course interactively – no lecturing – and while it is tiring (so much preparation!) it is a lot of fun.
My Typical Day
Talk about research projects with teams, write and run computer code, give lectures, read about other people’s research, write about our own work.
To be honest there isn’t a typical day. It depends on what is most pressing in a given week. There are a number of different things that I do often:
I regularly meet with research students and staff individually and in groups to talk about their projects with them. I am involved in about ten different projects with about fifteen people – I try to meet with them all about once a week to talk about progress, and to discuss ideas to try out next. Part of this is reading about other people’s research to keep up with the state of the art in my area, and also I help writing about what we have been doing to inform other researchers around the world.
I travel to conferences both nationally and internationally a number of times a year to present our research results, and learn about the work of other groups. Conferences are really exciting! You get to meet and talk with all the top people in the world about what you and they are doing (amazingly, I count a few current and future Nobel prize winners amongst my network). They can be rather tiring – they often run from early in the morning to late at night, but they can be really inspiring – and it is often where I generate my best ideas. Also, they tend to be held in exotic locations so it is interesting to see different bits of the world.
I work with a number of different researchers in many countries around the world. Conferences are great places to catch up with them, and I usually try to tack on a visit to one of them with a conference. In typical weeks at home we often we meet virtually using Skype and other video-conferencing tools.
When I was more junior I used to get time to work on my own research projects – where I do the bulk of the work – but now I am more involved with other people’s projects my role is now more providing ideas and suggesting directions for other people who are “at the coal face.” Occasionally I can find a few hours to work on problems of my own – solving equations, writing and running computer code, graphing data, and other things like that.
In the weeks that I am teaching, that tends to eat up most of my time and research gets neglected. We lecture sections of courses that run for several weeks – and while there might only be four hours of contact time with students a week, it usually takes a full day to prepare for each of those hours! Not only for the teaching, but preparing assignments, marking, administering the course, responding to enquiries, and so on.
I also get to go to quite a few other meetings every month regarding how the university and my own particular School is run.
What I'd do with the money
Set up a website that provides useful career information and advice for Australian school students interested in science.
Last year I helped represent maths and physics at the university open day. The number one question I was asked was “So, if I study maths/physics at university, what sort of job would that prepare me for?”
This was something that I hadn’t really thought about that much before, and while I had several friends who studied physics and went off and found themselves a job, I didn’t know that much about what sort of jobs the typical graduate in physics and maths was capable of. I could give reasonable answers, but could only speak in general terms rather than about specifics, and I found this very unsatisfying.
It struck me that many students enrolling for study at university do it with a job in mind at the end. Eg lawyers, teachers, engineers, medical doctors, physiotherapists, accountants, etc. However, studying science doesn’t lead directly to a well-defined job – and I am concerned that this puts off a lot of students.
So, after talking about this with a recent physics student who was interested in science communication, I managed to get her a scholarship for the summer to look into what careers degrees in science prepare students for, and to find some specific examples.
I would like to take the summary information that she has almost finished compiling and turn it into a website for students who are interested in science to get more information about how to go about it, and what the best options are for their interests. Even better, I would like to be able to have a question and answer section – where students could ask questions and get them answered by someone in the know.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Queensland’s Sheldon Cooper
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Split Enz / Neil Finn.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Two weeks of pure holiday on the Greek Islands of Lipsi and Ikaria when I was still a carefree student.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
I wish I was smarter, I wish I had more time in every day, and I wish I could sleep in more often.
What did you want to be after you left school?
When I left school I wanted to be a scientist – I just didn’t know what type!
Were you ever in trouble in at school?
I was almost exclusively a goody two-shoes – so the one time I punched someone in the face in class I got away with it!
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
I am probably the most proud of inspiring a number of students to change their minds about what they were going to study, and instead do physics at university.
Tell us a joke.
Two atoms bump into each other. One says ‘I think I lost an electron!’ The other asks, ‘Are you sure?’ The first replies, ‘I’m positive.’
Rugby union, tennis, a bit of rugby league – but give me a chance and I will follow pretty much any sport.
It’s hard to go past the All Blacks.