Ian Williams is in no doubt about the calibre of the PhD students he sees at the Centre for Plasma Physics. "I've been lecturing here for 25 years and the top people we get are as good as students anywhere in the world. They're very high quality, with sharp minds and fresh enthusiasm."
One of the people he's certainly referring to is Chris Calvert who did his own PhD under Ian's guidance, "looking at the dynamics that occur when you interact lasers with fundamental atoms and molecules." They're now working colleagues, along with Jason Greenwood, exploring ultrafast dynamics in intense laser fields.
Chris is in the first year of a three-year Fellowship awarded by EPSRC. "The aim is for me to identify experiments where I can look to apply my knowledge to the life science interface."
He says, "I'm seeking to bring the tools of the physicist's trade to life sciences. We're stepping beyond the traditional remit of fundamental physics, and looking to study ultrafast processes in molecules of biological interest, such as peptides and DNA bases. This avenue of research has really benefited from collaboration with biochemists here at Queen's."
Ian obtained his own PhD at Queen's, in experimental atomic physics, before going to the University of Sussex and then Caltech. He moved back to Belfast in 1985 as a lecturer, becoming a reader in 1996 and Chair in 1999 "with work almost exclusively funded by EPSRC."
He says, "About 10 years ago I began to look at how ions behave when you expose them to very intense, very short pulse lasers. We discovered a lot about the dynamics of very small molecules, for example, and over the years the work has evolved to a point where we can actually start controlling molecules as opposed to just observing them.
And now Jason Greenwood has developed systems that enable us to extend that to much bigger molecules and that's where Chris's work comes in."
Chris adds, "One of the things I've found in applying for funding is that it is important to identify potential applications that may be of industrial significance. We certainly think the work we're doing will have applications for mass spectrometry, a huge industry. You only have to think of airport security and forensic labs where it's important. But we must also constantly strive to understand the underlying dynamics from a physicist's point of view."
Chris is now working with custom-built, ion-trap apparatus for studying the outcomes of ultrafast laser-molecule interactions, "If there's a concept you want to study and a particular outcome that you want then you have to design something specific to your purpose."
Ian adds, "For the PhD students, the development of skills here is tremendous. They get the opportunity to work with unique equipment, they learn how to interface with computers and how to tailor experimental techniques to deal with specific problems. It's fantastic experience. Many of them will end up in the local economy with the high-skill experience that high-tech companies are looking for and that definitely helps to attract some big employers to Northern Ireland."
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