Robert Bowman gazes round the Centre for Nanostructured Media, in the heart of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Queen's. "Inside these four walls are four academic staff running an activity that has a total of 30-plus people and a multimillionpound research portfolio. In effect, we're running a small company inside the University."
He continues, "We're trying to be innovative all the time. The pressure is getting the new opportunity, the new contract, opening up a new business area, closing down something that has run its course. The outside world doesn't realise some of the business-process thinking that academics are doing on a daily basis. A massive portfolio of skills is required."
Robert is Director of the Centre and also Professor of Material Physics. He came to Queen's as a lecturer in 1994 with a PhD from Strathclyde and an expertise in the area of high temperature superconductors. Since then he has moved towards research into ferroic materials systems such as ferroelectrics.
He says, "We have benefited over the last number of years from a range of both project and infrastructure grants." He points to two pieces of equipment. "EPSRC funding provided one of these focused ion beam microscopes and our high resolution transmission electron microscope, which are central to the work of Marty Gregg who carries out world-leading research in the properties of nanoscale ferroelectrics."
And he emphasises the innovative brilliance of his other academic colleagues. "We have the work of Bob Pollard who has received a number of awards in new nanostructuring approaches and we've applied these applications from nanoscale capacitors through to a very active programme in nanoscale plasmonics. Paul Dawson has been very active in the area of scanning probe-based nanoscale light sources. And that portfolio has an interest for a company like Seagate Technology."
He says, "We've worked on a range of short projects, one to three years, through EPSRC grants and that has allowed us to develop a strong reputation and performance in nanostructured materials. The most exciting development and a validation of that work has been the launch of our new ANSIN Centre which is the result of a £9.5m investment by Seagate. A large part of that was a capital donation. They've given us state-of-the-art equipment that complements but extends our infrastructure base so that we can engage at a level that's appropriate to dealing with the technology leaders which the multinational global companies are, but at the same time enhances the platform to continue to do interesting science."
And there is now a second major partner. FEI, the global leader in electron and ion microscopy, has recently made a six-figure investment in the work of the Centre.
With all this activity it is appropriate that among Robert's qualifications is an MBA, gained while being active in research at Queen's. "As well as being an academic, I've ended up in a position where a key function is managing people, resources and internal and external relationships."
Of the students working towards a PhD at the Centre, he says, "They all have different reasons for wanting to be here. You see a trajectory of their skills and their capability as they mature and change. In research they have to come up with new solutions every day and that's a big challenge. There are no signposts for them. They have to chart a path and make their own decisions. But that's a training they're getting for life."
He adds, "We see ourselves as a team with core strengths in particular areas but we're always trying to move forward and we have ambitious plans to expand the vision of the ANSIN hub. You have to be entrepreneurial. You have to be continually scanning the environment for opportunities. But if we deliver as an integrated team we'll advance together."
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