Stephen Morris, a postdoc at the Department's Centre of Molecular Materials for Photonics and Electronics and the winner of the 2010 Young Scientist award from the British Liquid Crystal Society was recently interviewed about his career. The article below by Virginia Gewin was originally published in the journal Nature as a Naturejobs feature and has been reproduced here with the editor's permission.
What is the best career decision you've made?
Agreeing to be project manager on a large four-year grant funded by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. We sought to develop a new generation of micrometre-sized, tunable light sources. Combining two roles — as a postdoc and a project manager — has been difficult, but it has been made easier by the team ethos of this group. The biggest hurdle was definitely being able to juggle my own research at the same time as doing managerial tasks — reporting, planning, and meeting targets for deliverables and milestones for the project as a whole.
Was the 2010 Young Scientist award a surprise?
Yes. I checked my email one Friday evening and found out I had won the award. I didn't even know I had been nominated. It is so nice to get recognition from your peers, who understand the intricacies of what you are doing — especially because this is such a small, specialized community. I don't know how much impact it will have on my career over the long term.
When did it become clear to you that you wanted to pursue a career in research?
As a third-year undergraduate, I had the opportunity to produce a thesis that described in detail why there was a discrepancy between the predicted and observed behaviour of solar neutrinos. Scientists had measured fewer neutrinos flowing from the Sun to Earth than was predicted by the standard model of physics. As I tried to make sense of this discrepancy, I realized that I wanted to do a PhD and pursue a research-based career in science.
How did you get interested in the new field of liquid-crystal lasers?
It was basically the result of meeting someone who offered me an opportunity I probably wouldn't have found on my own. When I was applying for PhD positions, I focused on experimental and nuclear particle physics. Then I met Harry Coles, director of the Centre of Molecular Materials for Photonics and Electronics. He opened my eyes to the alternatives offered by working with liquid-crystal lasers, which I hadn't considered. This burgeoning field really appealed to me because the physics was interesting, cross-disciplinary and had the potential for exciting applications.
What are the potential applications?
Liquid-crystal materials can be made into organic laser devices — which may be useful for medical diagnostic techniques because they are so small. These lasers are the thickness of a human hair and tunable in terms of wavelength, so they can be adapted easily to a host of situations. It may some day be possible to combine them with infrared medical diagnostic tools to create devices that are able, for example, to detect retinal glucose levels associated with the onset of diabetes.
What motivates your work more — the experiments or the applications?
I'm motivated by the day-to-day aspects of doing experiments in the lab. The applications really interest me, but ultimately small breakthroughs in fundamental research drive any progress towards new applications.
How has working in a small field affected your career decisions?
I've been very lucky to work with some of the leading groups in this new field, so there isn't much reason to move — something one is typically supposed to do as a postdoc. I would be hard-pressed to find another position where I would have both the top facilities and a world-class range of colleagues to work with.
Have you had a career-defining moment?
Being elected as a fellow of St Catharine's College, Cambridge, in 2007 was an important moment for me. It is quite rare for people to be elected as fellows of colleges, the decision being based in part on teaching and research accomplishments, unless they have a full academic position at the university — I was a postdoc and a project manager at the time. As I was only on contract, I felt it was some vindication that I was, at least, going in the right direction.
Are you trying to carve out a niche at Cambridge?
Yes. My ultimate goal is to secure a position at Cambridge — and that is certainly no easy feat. It is fiercely competitive here. I'm realistic that, although it is something I'm striving for, it is a long shot. The next few years are my opportunity to prove myself. There is also an element of luck because lectureships usually come up only now and again.