Photo:

Angus Cook

Just finished the last scheduled chat. Time to give my hands a rest!

Favourite Thing: I love to make presentations telling people about my research, using far too many animations and slide transitions.

My CV

Education:

Red Barn Primary School, 1995-2001. The Portsmouth Grammar School, 2001-2008. The University of Birmingham, 2009-present, Simon Fraser University, 2012-2013.

Qualifications:

MSci (Physics with International Study)

Work History:

The British School of Beijing, University of Birmingham Guild of Students

Current Job:

PhD Student

Employer:

The University of Birmingham

About Me

I’m trying to become a doctor (not the useful kind…) of materials science at the University of Birmingham.

I’m a physics graduate studying to obtain a PhD in Materials Science (specifically Corrosion Science, i.e. rust) at the University of Birmingham. I currently live with my girlfriend, who’s studying for a PhD in ancient history (specifically Egyptology, i.e. pyramids), also in Birmingham.
I’ve lived in Birmingham for ~7 years (without picking up the accent) since I started university here, though I spent a year studying in Canada as part of my university course.
I get my hair cut about twice a year, usually when I go to meet my girlfriend’s grandparents. I originally come from Portsmouth on the South coast. I’ll eat any food, but I try to stay away from REALLY spicy things (like whole chillis) and things in shells (they can be hard to eat, and I’m lazy). I’ve never broken a bone, but I have almost drowned. I often talk really fast, and people have to get me to repeat myself or slow down. I’m a big geek, and grew up on Sci-Fi shows (Star Trek, Stargate, Farscape) and books.

My Work

I do all sorts of horrible (well, maybe just unpleasent) things to stainless steels to try to make them rust. If we know when they rust then we can tell when to use stainless steel and when to use something else (like titanium or copper).

We use stainless steels in loads of different areas in our lives. You’ve probably got stainless steel knives and forks in your kitchen, and your oven and fridge probably use stainless steel somewhere in their design (usually shiny surfaces). It’s also used in buildings, factory machinery, boats, and (the stuff that I’m mainly interested in) containers to keep nuclear waste.
One big problem for things made out of metal is rust. If you’ve got an old swing, or and old wooden shed in the garden you can probably see some rusted metal. Even better if you’re next to the sea you can probably find LOADS of rusty things like pontoons, railings and probably old cars.
We don’t want things to rust (a rusty nail does a worse job than a non-rusty nail). We use stainless steel because it’s tough like steel, but also because it resists lots of environments which would cause other metals to rust. It’s not perfect though, and will still rust in the right (or wrong) conditions. My job is to expose the steel to loads of different conditions (like really hot ovens, really (REALLY) salty water, really acidic solutions) to see what causes them to rust, and which conditions the steel remains fine in. If we know that, we know when to use stainless steel (i.e. for cutlery) and when to use something else.

My Typical Day

Go to the office, think about doing the paperwork I’ve been putting off, go into the lab instead, try to use a machine, end up breaking (and then fixing!) the machine, LUNCH (important), use the machine to rust some metal, look at the metal under the microscope, take some nice pictures of the rusty metal, save the nice pictures to my computer, go back to the office, put the nice pictures into a report, write about my day in my lab book.

What I'd do with the money

I’d buy some handheld microscopes for schools to use in science lessons.

USB microscopes are a great tool to investigate the world and objects around us. They are able to produce a really high magnification, so you can really see closeup images of all sorts of things, like bugs, trainers, hands, PC screens, you name it!

Another great thing about USB microscopes is that you can save the image you take onto a computer, and then you can show it to all kinds of people, not just the people that are sitting with you by the microscope. You could show your friend what a phone screen looks like up close, you could show your gran what a Quaver looks like at 500x magnification, or your neighbour what a leaf looks like under a microscope.

If I’m awarded the money I want to buy some of these USB microscopes for the participating schools to use in their science lessons, and for whatever else they can think of.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Curious, silly, thoughtful.

Who is your favourite singer or band?

Daft Punk (Muse as a close second)

What's your favourite food?

Spaghetti Bolognise

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Dog-sledding in Norway (accidentally tipped my Grandma out of the sled (she’s fine!))

What did you want to be after you left school?

Military police officer

Were you ever in trouble at school?

Not much, but usually for talking when I shouldn’t have been (also being silly in class).

What was your favourite subject at school?

I liked art, but wasn’t very good.

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

Made a robot work that everyone else thought was broken.

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

I liked (and still do!) learning things. When they’re things that no one else knows yet, even better!

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?

I think I’d like to make video games (they overlap more than you might think!).

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

I’d wish to sense magnetic fields, to be able to fly (effortlessly though, if it were like running I’d probably still take the train to work), and to be able to speak every language fluently.

Tell us a joke.

Two muffins are sitting in an oven. The oven is getting hotter, and hotter, and hotter. One muffin turns to the other and says ‘I think we’re done for.’. The second muffin turns to the first and says: ‘HOLY CRAP! A TALKING MUFFIN!’ – This is honestly my favourite joke.

Other stuff

Work photos:

Fist thing before we enter the lab:

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Always wear safety gear in a lab.

Now a brief tour of the main sections of the lab.

This is the electrochemistry section. Mainly we wire up bits of metal to a power source (think like a battery or similar) to see how this makes them rust more or less. It’s a very tidy area (see image). I do not work in this bit too much.

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The tidy bit of the lab…

On the left of the picture we have some waterbaths we use to keep experiments at the right temperature. Some of my friends want to look at what happens to metals in the body (like fake teeth or bone screws), and they need to keep their experiments at 37 °C, the same inside the body. The big metal cage on the middle/right is called a Faraday Cage. We put experiments in there so that things like phone signals and radio waves don’t confuse our results. The silver box on the very right is a temperature chamber (fancy word for an oven). I talk more about that later.

This is the middle section. It is less tidy (see the four chairs doing nothing in the middle of the space), and it is usually where I work.

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…and the other bit of the lab.

There’s a mix of stuff here, including cameras, a laser scanner and four chairs getting in the way (I may have already mentioned them…). The orange box on the left is a fire safe, where we have to keep any chemicals that might cause an explosion!

This is what I spend the most time with. It’s a robot I use in my research to put down little droplets of chemicals onto the metal I want to test. It was broken when I took the picture, but I’m happy to say that I managed to fix it (again).

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The ‘MultiPROBE II Ex Automated Liquid Handling System’. That’s a bit of a mouthful, so we usually just call it the ‘Marshmallow’

I like to use the robot because it is much better at doing the same thing again and again and again than I am, and being able to do exactly the same thing over and over is really important in science. I also like to use it because I am lazy.

We also have a microscope, a fume cupboard and a ‘De-Ionised’ water dispenser.

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We use this to take pretty pictures of our samples, and to inspect what’s going on on a really small scale.

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If we’re worried about breathing in anything that might hurt us while we’re doing an experiment, we do it in the fume cupboard. That way any nasty gas or anything is sucked into the cupboard away from us.

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It’s really important that we have really really clean water to work with, so that we can be sure that the only chemicals which are effecting our metals are the ones we put in on purpose. We use this machine (the box with a ‘2’ on it, and the tank on the left) to clean up tapwater for us to use in the lab.

This is one of our ovens. Temperature is really important in how metal rusts, and if the temperature of our metal changes over time then the results we get from our experiment can be confusing. We use the chamber to make sure we know what the temperature is of our metal as it’s rusting.

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Outside of the temperature chamber…

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…and the inside. There’s a metal sample in the blue plastic tub in the corner of the oven.