The One That Got Away…

This is a guest post from Mo Beshr, an undergraduate student at TU Dublin who’ll soon be starting the final year of his Science with Nanotechnology degree. As part of his third year programme, Mo spent six months — from March until August — in our group. [Note to group: we really need to update our website.] Mo’s thoughts on his internship are below. The best of luck with your final year, Mo!


I knew from before even starting university that I wanted to pursue a career in research as it’s been a long-time dream of mine to make a difference in the world — what better way is there than being on the forefront of science discovering something new every day! All students in my course were given the opportunity to carry out their placement in Ireland or abroad through the Erasmus programme. It was always a goal of mine to travel abroad and experience what it would be like to live independently. So once my supervisor at TU Dublin approached me about placement opportunities, I made it clear to him that I was keen to travel abroad.

I was offered countless research opportunities in various universities across Europe such as Germany, Switzerland and France. I’m not much of a languages guy, however, so I thought I’d give living in Nottingham in England a go; sure, they’re our neighbours from across the pond. But if we’re going to be serious, I immediately jumped at the idea of carrying out my placement in the University of Nottingham as I knew a lot about it through watching Sixty Symbols, Numberphile, and Periodic Videos on YouTube, which are channels that include videos on various topics in science explained by staff members of the university. As well as that, I had known of the great work carried out by the Nanoscience Group at the University and I was very excited to see how all that I had studied as a Nanoscience undergrad was applied. Thankfully I was accepted to carry out my work placement in the University of Nottingham working directly with the Nanoscience Group under the supervision of Professor Philip Moriarty between March and August 2019.

My work was focused on the use of ultrahigh vacuum, low temperature ( 5 K and 77 K) scanning tunnelling microscopy (STM) for atomic resolution imaging of metal and semiconductor surfaces, spectroscopy and manipulation of single atoms and molecules. As you can imagine, going from being a goofy student who attended a handful of lectures everyday to being thrown into the big bad world of research was quite daunting. However, with some time and excellent help and advice by the PhD researchers I worked with and my supervisor I got into the swing of things quickly.

Initially, the toughest tasks were understanding how the STM system I would be using operated and how to analyse STM images and spectra. During my initial time in Nottingham I worked with a PhD researcher named Alex Allen on his project, which involved taking scanning tunnelling spectra (STS) of a C60/ Ag(100) sample using the Createc low temperature STM system. When I had first arrived, a sample of C60/Ag(100) had already been inside the Createc STM chamber and only ever removed for annealing and deposition purposes. During one of our weekly meetings, Phil noticed there were porphyrin contaminants on our sample and in order to fix this we had to remove the sample first from the STM and then from the ultrahigh vacuum chamber. While doing this we were, of course, always observing the movements of the STM tip using the live video from the camera. We then replaced the sample.

Once cleaning of the sample had been completed (by sputtering with ions and subsequent annealing), we would bring the sample back into the STM chamber and scan it in order to make sure it was clean and had an atomically flat surface; on the final sputter-anneal cycle, we achieved atomic resolution. Deposition of the desired molecules would then take place. The deposition process involved placing the sample over a crucible of C60. The crucible was then heated up with a high current which in turn sublimes the buckminsterfullerene molecules, thus allowing for the molecules to impinge on the surface of the sample. Once deposition was complete, we collected liquid nitrogen — following my health and safety induction — and then pumped it through the manipulator arm. This was done in order to cool the sample and control just how the fullerene molecules crystallised on the surface.

Finally, the sample was returned to the STM and scanning commenced once again. The  cryostat surrounding the STM was regularly filled with liquid nitrogen, which keeps the sample cooled throughout the scans…


In quite a few cases the scans were quite blurry or appeared smeared due to the STM tip being in a bad state. Sometimes the tip wasn’t atomically sharp and/or add more than one molecule on its apex, leading to multiple tunnelling current centres and thus “blurring” the image. In that case, a method known technically as, err, “crashing” was implemented — a clean area was found, and the tip was pushed into the surface to modify its apex. Once a tip had been “sharpened” and clear images were produced, we could carry out scanning tunnelling spectroscopy (STS) of the surface at any specific point. The tip would be positioned above a molecule. The bias was then varied, and the tunnelling current was recorded, giving a plot of the current-voltage characteristic for a single molecule. Differentiating the I(V) spectrum gives us information on the density of states of the molecules.

As well as gaining valuable experience in operating STM systems, I also obtained training in so-called “soft” skills. Literature review topics were assigned to me prior to carrying out any experimental work so I would have a better understanding of the topic of investigation. This involved me writing a report summarising the literature on that topic. The reviews were an excellent opportunity for me to improve my academic writing skills; with every review I could see improvement, and this prepared me very well for my end-of-placement report. After each literature review, I presented what I had found during group meetings, which was very intimidating as I had never given a presentation before! However, I improved with every presentation and the practice gave me great confidence when I returned to Ireland to present my work placement experience to my peers and lecturers.

Completing my work placement with the Nanoscience Group at Nottingham has let me  apply what I have learned in my three years as an undergraduate student and really opened my eyes to a future in research and academia. I now understand what it takes to be a researcher and I believe that I am now capable of pursuing my dream of becoming a researcher and hopefully to make a positive impact in the world of science. I hope this blog inspires other students like me to consider research as a future career path, as there is truly so much still out there to learn and find out. One tends to learn something new every day, and you realise that you are indeed on the frontline of science.

Breaking Through the Barriers

A colleague alerted me to this gloriously barbed Twitter exchange earlier today:


Jess Wade‘s razor-sharp riposte to Brian Cox was prompted by just how Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell has chosen to spend the £2.3M [1] associated with the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics she was awarded today. Here’s the citation for the Prize:

The Selection Committee of the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics today announced a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics recognizing the British astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell for her discovery of pulsars – a detection first announced in February 1968 – and her inspiring scientific leadership over the last five decades.

In a remarkable act of generosity, Bell Burnell has donated the entire prize money to the Institute of Physics to fund PhD studentships for, as described in a BBC news article, “women, under-represented ethnic minority and refugee students to become physics researchers.” 

Bell Burnell is quoted in The Guardian article to which Brian refers as follows: “A lot of the pulsar story happened because I was a minority person and a PhD student… increasing the diversity in physics could lead to all sorts of good things.”

As an out-and-proud ‘social justice warrior’, [2] I of course agree entirely.

That rumbling you can hear in the distance, however, is the sound of 10,000 spittle-flecked, basement-bound keyboards being hammered in rage at the slightest suggestion that diversity in physics (or any other STEM subject) could ever be a good thing. Once again I find myself in full agreement with my erstwhile University of Nottingham colleague, Peter Coles:

[1] A nice crisp, round $3M for those on the other side of the pond.

[2] Thanks, Lori, for bringing those wonderful t-shirts to my attention!



(Guest post) Doing a PhD: To move or not to move?

There’s nothing I enjoy more than a good old spat with my Head of School, Mike Merrifield. Our debates run the gamut of the academic’s traditional soap-box topics, but a theme to which we return regularly is the question of the importance – or not – of moving institution for early career researchers. I put forward my views on this in a blog post for physicsfocus last year. In this guest post (a first for “Symptoms…”), Mike explains why he and I disagree on the question of whether PhD students and postdocs should be assessed on the basis of their mobility.

Once again I find myself somewhat in disagreement with my friend and colleague Professor Moriarty.  This is never an entirely comfortable place to be, because he argues tenaciously, and, irritatingly, is right more often than not, but on this occasion I thought it was worth trying to spell out my reasoning with a little more nuance than is allowed by the 140 character sound bites of Twitter.

The catalyst for this disagreement was Philip’s response to an article in the THE entitled 10 steps to PhD failure.  His objection was to one of the pieces of advice given that

“Going somewhere else for your PhD shows that you have expanded your intellectual horizons. In contrast, others will view the fact that you did all your degrees at the same place as an indication that you lack scholarly breadth and independence, and that you were not wise or committed enough to follow this standard advice about studying elsewhere.”

which led to a lengthy Twitter discussion of whether mobility is an appropriate factor to consider as an indicator of drive and independence, where Philip’s position is “no,” and mine is “sometimes.”

First let me make it clear that I agree with Philip that the article is wrong if it implies that any such consideration is absolute.  Anyone contemplating where to do a PhD should weigh up a whole range of elements, which should include lifestyle as well as professional factors to establish where on the spectrum of work–life balance they want or need to position themselves.  While some people may relish the opportunities afforded by moving to a new locale and maybe even experiencing the culture of another country, others could be happily settled where they did their undergraduate degree, or have responsibilities that limit their ability to relocate, which may well then over-ride any other considerations.

But, pretty much by definition, work–life balance implies a compromise that does not optimise either side of the equation individually, and anyone considering where to do a PhD should at least think about the potential downsides to staying in the same institution:

  • You have already interacted with the academic staff at that institution quite closely, and heard at least some of what they have to teach you. Educationally, there are benefits to encountering other points of view and learning about topics where your current institution may have very little expertise.  You can certainly pick some of that up by going to summer schools, conferences, etc, but there is no substitute for being embedded in a different, challenging working environment to really get a new perspective on things.
  • What are the chances that you happen to have done your first degree at the best place in the World for whatever discipline has caught your interest? Surely, very few students apply to university on the basis of a specific sub-discipline; indeed, they may not have even reached the level to study and appreciate many of the more exciting possibilities until they are quite a long way into their undergraduate programmes.  It would therefore be an amazing coincidence if they happen to be at the institution where the most exciting and innovative work in that field is currently being undertaken.  If you are in the happy position of being willing and able to relocate, why wouldn’t you have the ambition to try to go to the best place in the World to pursue your interest?
  • If you decide to go beyond your PhD in an academic setting, you will have to convince someone to employ you in an appropriate postdoctoral post. Typically, you may be up against fifty-or-so other applicants, and the people responsible for selection will be considering a variety of factors to decide to whom to offer the job.  One of the things they are likely to be looking for is evidence of drive and independence.  It is unfortunately true that some students do drift into doing a PhD just by following the “path of least resistance” when they finished as undergraduates, as carrying on in the same place doing more-or-less the same thing is easier than making a more radical departure.  From a potential employer’s perspective, it can be difficult to separate such drifters from more dynamic motivated individuals who have consciously opted to stay at their original institution, whereas someone who has moved to a different strong institution is clearly not suffering from inertia and has more apparently made a pro-active career decision.  Thus, while absence of mobility does not constitute evidence of a lack of drive, it is an absence of evidence for such drive.
  • The same issue also arises a little later in an academic career, when a postdoctoral researcher will likely be applying for individual fellowships or faculty positions against even longer odds. At this point, the assessor is looking for evidence of the applicant’s originality.  I know from experience serving on fellowship and appointment panels that it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle the applicant’s intellectual contribution to the work from that of their collaborators.  One indicator is the level of variety in authorship of papers published – if an individual has never published a paper that doesn’t have their old PhD supervisor as an author, it can be very difficult for the assessor to determine whether all the ideas presented originated with that supervisor, too.  A wider variety of collaborations, on the other hand, suggests a much more outgoing approach to developing research ideas, not to mention the sought-after intellectual curiosity that draws one to new and different problems.  Such a breadth of authorship and interests is more readily established if one has worked in more than one research group.

Bear in mind that for all these considerations there will always be exceptions.  All that I really want to put across is that it is more straightforward to demonstrate the intellectual curiosity that drives the best researchers if you are able and willing to be mobile, and that if you are not then it is important to take extra steps to establish these traits in other visible ways.

Finally, I should reiterate that this piece was really only intended to lay out the implications of mobility (or immobility) for one side of work–life balance, and that the appropriate location for the fulcrum of that balance is a matter for all individuals to decide for themselves.