Salty polymers & plastic added metals: Adam Micolich joins Real Scientists

Stuck at a deskTaking over @RealScientists this week we are thrilled to welcome Associate Professor Adam Micolich from the very impressive sounding Condensed Matter Physics Nanoelectronics Group at the University of New South Wales (UNSW). Keen followers of Real Scientists might remember him from the photo tour of the UNSW given by one of the previous resident tweeters the Museum of human disease.

Adam has had an intresting route into science from technical drawing to flying planes and dealing with fractal art. In addition to all that he also runs his own youtube channel and chats about the trials and tribulations of academia in his blog. Both of which you should check out, but before you do please read through Adam’s own mini-autobiography where he expands on all these subjects.

I work in the School of Physics at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia — the other big university in Sydney and I’d say, the better and more modern one 😛 I am a physicist by training but would say I’m now more of a nanotechnologist, as my interests extend a bit beyond what many purists would consider physics. My research is on nanoscale electronic devices: how to make them, how to use new materials in them, how they work and how they might ultimately get used, be it in computers or as tools for biology. A big focus of my last four years has been research, as I’ve been on an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship; but I also have a keen interest in teaching and science communication. Now that I’m back in a more traditional academic role, I’m picking up those bits again – they’re often as fun as research, perhaps more so. I have my own youtube channel where I post videos of some of the experiments I show in lectures and a blog where I sometimes post on issues in academia.

I probably had a fairly typical childhood for a scientist — generally curious, wanted to know how things work, found science interesting at school. But, I wasn’t always so devoted to science as many might expect – it was always an interest amongst other things. Early on I wanted to be a radio host (still do some days…) and used my first electronics kit to build a radio transmitter and run a radio station out of my own bedroom, sadly to zero listeners. In high school, science competed with computing and technical drawing for my interests – the latter almost convinced me to abandon science at the end of my first year of university to do architecture instead (the paperwork was too onerous, so I gave physics one more year and just kept going).

Even still, I didn’t end up in science directly. I was always keen on aviation, and after several years in the Air Training Corps (aka Australian Air Force Cadets) I left school to take a position at the Australian Defence Force Academy as a trainee pilot. This didn’t work out so well – I got dropped out for medical issues (the fitness requirements for pilots are fierce) – and so I transferred back to UNSW in Sydney to do my plan B, which was physics. I did learn to fly a plane though, which was great fun, and if I have the money some day I might go back to flying for fun. Needless to say, when my job has me flying on small planes I’m very happy (the best was probably a flight down the Florida keys in a plane without a cockpit door, so you could see straight out the front windows).

Coming into university my initial interest was astronomy, as it is for many, but I quickly got a bit disillusioned by it — too much image processing for me. The time where I found my passion in physics was in 3rd year when we started doing proper laboratory experiments. The practical side of physics is something I’ve always liked, and something I spent lots of time tinkering around with as a kid: lego, electronics kits, etc. My parents refused to buy me a chemistry kit as they thought I’d burn the house down! They bought me a physics kit instead – which was just as dangerous. Before long I had a summer vacation scholarship at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) and I was well and truly hooked on experimental physics. The following year I did a research project on nanoscale electronic devices, and I’ve been working in that area ever since – more or less…

I did my Ph.D. working on nanoscale semiconductor devices called ‘billiards’, which are basically just tiny pool tables where the balls are electrons. The idea was to study how the wavelike nature of the electron influences how it bounces off edges in devices, looking for new phenomena that might be of practical interest in future electronics. We were interested in how chaos theory might be involved in the dynamics of the electrons (studying chaos in wave-particles is a field called ‘quantum chaos’) and my Ph.D. thesis explored how this turns up as fractal structures in measurements of the current that flows through the device. More about how this works in the week on @realscientists…

My Ph.D. project led to a side project with my supervisor where we looked at whether the famous drip paintings of the American abstract artist, Jackson Pollock, were fractal. Little did I know, but my supervisor had returned to physics a year or two earlier from an extended break that involved being an art school student in the UK (he was always torn between the two: physics and art). Suddenly he had a student who was good at writing computer code, legacy of a childhood that began with an Atari 2600 and ended with a Commodore 64, and together we set about analysing scanned images of Pollock artwork. We showed that there are fractals in Pollock’s work, which lead to a lot of media attention. Ironically, despite my best research efforts, that side project is still the thing I’m most known for. Such is life…

CleanroomSince then I have worked on lots of aspects of a field people tend to call ‘device physics’. Half of this has been pure curiosity-driven ‘basic’ research including things like how electrons behave when confined to two-dimensions, one-dimension or zero-dimensions at very low temperatures and high magnetic fields. The devices are tiny, with features as small as 10 nanometers, and made in a cleanroom to avoid issues with dust, contaminants, etc. The temperatures, as low as a hundredth of a degree above absolute zero, are amongst the coldest in the universe when we do these experiments, and the magnetic fields are large enough to drag small metal objects around the lab if you aren’t careful. The goal is to better understand how electrons behave in nanoscale devices so we can use that knowledge as the foundation for future technologies. The other half of my work has been more applied research, including projects looking at how to add metals to plastics to make them superconducting (the process is a little like inking a tattoo) and how to make nanoscale transistors where we can control the current using a salty polymer gel. Curiously, the gel happens to also be one of the key ingredients in laxatives :)

nanowire transistor

My job now is basically an interesting mish-mash of research, teaching and other stuff – some of which includes science communication. I spend a lot less time in the lab now, which is mostly the domain of my team of talented young scientists, but I tend to make the odd cameo appearance when life gets tricky or we’re kick-starting a new project. I just finished teaching introductory quantum mechanics for 2nd year students at UNSW (I’m marking the exam this week!) and next session I am teaching the first half of the first year physics course. This part of the course is on electricity and magnetism, which is really cool, as it has some of my favorite practical demonstrations. Around that I’m involved in things like helping to upgrade our teaching labs and with committee work for organizations like the Australian Nanotechnology Network.

climbingIn my spare time (of which it seems I have very little these days!) I do all sorts of things. I’m an avid skier and wish I lived a lot closer to the snow than I do. I used to surf a lot, but live too far from the beach now for it to be practical, given Sydney traffic. I do lots of running, a bit of rock climbing. I can play the bass reasonably well (lots of red hot chili peppers) and I’m trying to learn the piano. I’m a passionate Formula 1 fan (one of the nuts who stays up late Sunday nights) and I like watching cricket and rugby league (especially state of origin), ideally over a few beers. Speaking of beer, I love beer – and I mean the proper stuff, not those horrible lagers… I like reading and often have several books on the go at one time, switching between them. I’m a huge fan of Hunter S. Thompson (read just about everything he’s written), Irvine Welsh, Haruki Murakami and Scandinavian crime novels (Nesbo, Läckberg, Roslund & Hellström, etc). I am also a serious politics junky, but will try to indulge in that a bit less this week perhaps :)

Matthew (@MCeeP)

Matthew is a research fellow at Cranfield University that while trained as a biochemist has accidentally ended up working with optical sensor systems. In addition to helping out @RealScientists he also runs a blog called Errant Science and writes a monthly column for Laboratory News .

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