Name: Dr Tim Gabriel
Research institution: University College Cork, Ireland
Research career length: 11 years
Research Council: Previously funded by Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)
Location: Cleckheaton, UK
Brief summary of research: Making materials for batteries and solar cells which have tiny structures and shapes, allowing them to work more efficiently
A-levels: Mathematics, Chemistry and French
BSc in Chemistry with European Studies (French), Newcastle University/University of Versailles
PhD in Chemistry, Southampton University
Postdoctoral Research Assistant, University College Cork, Ireland
Lecturer – University of Huddersfield
Experimental Development Formulation Chemist, Syngenta Agrochemicals
“It was a freedom to learn, conduct my own experiments and to plan my working day which was very appealing and very exciting.”
Nanotechnology is seen as one of the most important and exciting scientific developments of our time and involves controlling atoms and molecules or matter 100,000 times smaller than the width of a hair on your head! In my particular field, the challenge is to use our knowledge of tiny particles to develop new, cheap, efficient lithium-ion batteries – the kind of batteries that you find in your mobile phones or your laptop.
Science was not the easy option for me, I preferred maths at school, but I had good science teachers who let us do experiments. By the time I had completed my A-levels, I was lucky enough to be accepted onto a degree at Newcastle University, which combined chemistry with a language, allowing me to spend a brilliant research year at the University of Versailles in France. I was employed to look at the organic synthesis of pharmaceutical products– the chemical process by which scientists make drugs to prevent, treat or cure illness. It was this experience that first exposed me to a world where I could conduct my own experiments.
Looking back, I gained three very important things from working with my French research colleagues. First there was the experience of learning a language and working abroad in a new and challenging environment. I became more confident, independent and sociable, developing as an individual. Finally, I discovered that although I enjoyed carrying out experiments, organic research wasn’t for me (there was too much time spent heating, stirring, and analysing carbon atoms)! So with a clearer sense of what I did and didn’t want to do, I returned to finish my degree at Newcastle University. It wasn’t until my final year project, looking into the effects of water on airplane brake that I began thinking about a career in scientific research involving materials and analysis, a link to environmental factors and hopefully international travel!
After a short time in a multinational agrochemical company, working on small research development projects, I started a PhD at Southampton University and with Merck Chemicals. Working in the Electrochemistry Department, I carried out research that looked into creating materials using liquid crystals-molecules like the ones you find in digital watches and soap. At first, I wasn’t quite sure what this meant, but this developed into a hugely enjoyable research project in the exciting, new field of nanotechnology. It involved making materials with nanoshapes which would then be used in solar cells.
Working at the forefront of modern science, I was also fortunate to work alongside and be supported by a range of experienced, successful physicists and chemists. We were the first people to create semiconductor materials with strikingly different properties, and as a result, I was invited to travel to the USA to talk about my work and to develop my ideas with another team of scientists.
By the end of the project, I had also gained more general abilities that are important in most jobs, such as time and project management, effective communication and advanced team-working skills. Through developing my presenting skills, I was then nominated to represent the University of Southampton’s science department at a research competition held House of Commons. A few years later, I was promoting my scientific research to the general public on TV, radio and stage and my contribution to communicating science was formally recognised with a meeting with former Prime Minister Tony Blair.
The skills and knowledge I developed as a researcher helped me in my work as a chemistry lecturer at Huddersfield University, where, amongst other things, I managed a small science unit, wrote for a local newspaper. I even worked with the Forensic Science department observing post-mortem examinations and crime scene specialists at work. Following my time as a lecturer, I chose to continue my research work – this time in nanomaterial fabrication at University College Cork, Ireland. As a postdoctoral researcher funded by Science Foundation Ireland, I was expected to manage a larger project taking charge of my own work, while supporting other PhD students and running a lab.
Research has allowed me to see parts of the world, which I may otherwise have never considered visiting. For example, on a trip to Vancouver I was lucky enough to have ski slopes, costal bike rides and an amazing nightlife at my disposal, in between talking about batteries…it’s a little surreal when I think about it!
After over a decade of researching various aspects of chemical, physical and materials science I am unsure where the next stop on my journey might be. Working as a researcher has given me a greater appreciation for how science can change our lives, and the opportunity to uncover answers to practical problems still excites me. For me, the uncertainty, scale and depth of research is a thrilling unpredictable ride.