AUSTRALIAN INSTITUTE OF PHYSICS

Promoting the role of Physics in research, education, industry and the community

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HIDDEN PHYSICISTS 2021

Nicole Reynolds, Febuary's Hidden Physicist

Employer: Australian Institute of Physics (AIP)

Job title and description: Operations Manager.

Got a question? Feel free to call or email! As the Operations Manager, I look after the daily running of the AIP: answering emails and phone calls, manage the finances, liaise with publishers and printers for the mailout of Australian Physics magazine, and work with Science In Public to get out the monthly bulletin. The best things about my role are its diversity and flexibility.

I work part-time and in among my daily tasks are projects, which range from assisting in the transition to new membership software, setting up the Public Fellows List and working on organizing the database. I am facilitating the merger of the aip.org.au website and Wild Apricot membership software, so stay tuned!

My career story so far:

I have not followed a typical linear progression. I started out as a scientist, enthusiastic about science communication, and now am a marketing and communication graduate who is passionate about working with science-related businesses to achieve their goals. The general theme through my career has been a thirst for learning and new ideas.

I discovered science communication through working at Kickstart at the University of Sydney, while completing my Physics BSc. Science communication is a great way for physicists to give back to the community – explaining the physics problems of our time, and using physics to explain the world around us. During my BSc I was lucky enough to get a summer vacation physicist position at ANSTO. That set me along a lifelong love of magnetism and neutron science.

Through ANSTO I went on to do a MPhil of Physics at UNSW. During that time I had the privilege of attending the Oxford Neutron School. The culture and excitement of traveling to further my physics career led me to pursue a PhD in Quantum Magnetism at ETH, Switzerland. I travelled to France and England to perform experiments at neutron facilities. I attended schools, meetings and lectures with my European peers. I had great fun growing crystals, categorising them and using them for neutron, muon and x-ray experiments.

Unfortunately, my health had other ideas for my career, and nine months after a spinal surgery I made the hard decision to stop my PhD, move back to Australia and focus on physical recovery. As many of you may know, and I soon found out, focusing on your health cannot be a full-time occupation. So, I decided to improve my skillset in between my therapy sessions. I took a short course in science communication writing and completed a Certificate IV in marketing and communications at TAFE.

Six months into my course I applied for the role Operations Manager with AIP. Like all things in my life, I threw myself in and worked as hard as I could learning how to do and understand everything; thinking of ideas for assisting with the running and outlook of the AIP where I can. It has been the best decision. With the aid of some old colleagues, I have found a surprising new path that allows me to stay connected to the physics world, uses my problem-solver brain and, most importantly, that I enjoy.

Meet Dr James McCaw, March's Hidden Physicist

Employer: The University of Melbourne

Job title and description: Professor of Mathematical Biology

My career story so far:

I’m a mathematical biologist, specialising in infectious diseases epidemiology. At the University of Melbourne, I lead a diverse team of research scientists with backgrounds in physics, mathematics, biology, public health and computer science. We all have a strong desire to improve public health by studying how infectious diseases spread through the population. We do this through the development and application of mathematical models to laboratory, clinical and epidemiological data.

My career in epidemiology came as a surprise to me. In 2005, having just completed a PhD in theoretical physics – where I attempted to characterise chaotic dynamics in quantum systems – I saw a job advertisement in the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health. They were advertising for an ‘infectious diseases modeller’ and wanted to recruit someone with a background in physics, engineering or mathematics. I had no idea what it was about, but I was curious.

A little investigation led me to some fascinating mathematics: the application of non-linear dynamical systems theory to infectious diseases data. And I discovered that physicists had been foundational in establishing the field. Indeed, Lord Robert May of Oxford, who sadly passed away on 28 April last year, had begun his career in nuclear physics in Sydney. He had seen the opportunities for mathematics to contribute to the life-sciences, first in ecology and then in the infectious diseases of humans. In 1992, with Roy Anderson, he co-authored the now seminal book Infectious Diseases of Humans: Dynamics and Control. I had the pleasure of meeting with him in Oxford on a few occasions. And as it so happens, he was a life-long friend of my PhD supervisor, Professor Bruce McKellar.

Anyway, I took a chance and applied for the job. My dream of a post-doctoral position in physics was put on hold. Infectious diseases epidemiology – and a post-doc in a medical faculty – awaited me. I never looked back.

Today, 16 years on, I’ve found my way back across campus, employed as a member of academic staff in the School of Mathematics and Statistics as Professor of Mathematical Biology. I retain a 20 per cent appointment in Population and Global Health. I still consider myself a physicist, of sorts. My education certainly shaped how I see the world, and how I attack problems. I examine data, using it to motivate the structure of non-linear dynamics models. I then study the bifurcation structure of those models, their transient dynamics and asymptotic behaviour. Just as in physics, my research is an interplay between theory and experiment. It’s just that the problems aren’t those that appear in traditional physics text books.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put my research field on the map. The Susceptible-Infectious-Recovered (SIR) model and the reproduction number (R0) are suddenly common knowledge. This is incredibly exciting to see. Epidemiology, and biology more broadly, is changing – and it isn’t just about ‘data science analytics’ and machine learning.

I think there is a more fundamental change on the way. We are shifting our viewpoint for how we make sense of the biological world. Models, once largely conceptual (and secondary to the empirical study of the diverse and deeply complex systems that characterise biology) are becoming quantitative and more highly valued. Pictures are giving way to equations. Hand-waving arguments are giving way to dynamical systems. Interrogating biological data with these models provides new insight. It reveals discrepancies. It hints at overlooked mechanisms. Sense can be made of the structures and patterns emerging.

Transmission dynamics models – and their application to data – have been a crucial component of the COVID-19 response. Since 2005, I have worked closely with the Australian government on pandemic preparedness. And in January 2020 I was asked to join the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee as one of just a handful of ‘invited experts’. In this role I have been advising government and National Cabinet on everything from the early border closure with China to a risk-assessment of emerging ‘variants of concern’ and the possible implications for our hotel quarantine system. In between, I’ve advised on school closures, mask-wearing, stay-at-home orders and almost every other policy decision faced by our governments. Models, and ‘physics thinking’ have formed the foundation for my thoughts, views and advice.

My training in physics – plus a decade of on-the-ground training in infectious diseases biology, epidemiology and public health – was the ideal preparation to make a contribution to our emergency response. Physicists know how to develop models and study out-of-equilibrium dynamics. And the emergence of a novel pathogen, spreading into a fully-susceptible population, which itself is responding with restrictions and other measures designed to limit transmission, is most-certainly an out-of-equilibrium dynamical system.

What better training than in physics?

Meet Dr Phil Burns, April's Hidden Physicist

Employer: Wrays

Job title and description: Senior Associate Patent Attorney

As a senior patent attorney, I assist my clients in establishing and maintaining patents for their innovative work and research. My clients include small start-up companies bootstrapping their first minimum viable product, research organisations and universities looking to commercialise their research output, and large multinational corporations seeking to form a strong intellectual property barrier to competitors entering their product space.

A patent attorney must be able to identify the underlying principle of the innovation and prepare legally enforceable patent claims. These must protect both the innovation itself, and variations on the theme to prevent a competitor from simply copying the principle to develop its own product.

My background as a physicist is invaluable. As each patent application will be in a different field of technology, my technical knowledge enables me to quickly establish an understanding of the client’s technology, and provide relevant technical and legal advice.

The best part of my job is the varied technologies that come across my desk every day. On any given day I work with between five and 10 patent applications across the areas of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, optics and photonics, and medical devices. I also support other teams in my firm to process engineering and biotechnology applications. It is incredibly interesting to see the new innovations in physics before anyone else, and it is extremely rewarding to assist clients to achieve their business goals.

My career story so far:

I’m a Star Wars kid. I can still vividly remember myself as a 10-year-old watching the original movie (Episode 4: A New Hope, as it is now known) at my friend’s house. From Star Wars, my interest in lasers was strong and I devoured anything to do with them in high school, so physics was Number one on my subject preferences. My high school physics teacher was instrumental in fostering my love of the subject in general, and optics in particular, and made ‘Physics Phun’ (his exact spelling!).

I pursued optics at Macquarie University, with a degree in optoelectronics, then went on to an honours research project in spectroscopic analysis, jointly with the CSIRO and Macquarie’s physical chemistry department.

After Honours, I joined the Optical Fibre Technology Centre (OFTC), affiliated with Sydney University, as a research assistant. I was there for six months before deciding that I wanted more than to be working on other people’s projects. I chose to return to Macquarie to undertake a PhD in novel laser source engineering. .

As it turned out, starting my PhD when I did was very fortunate because it coincided with the tech bust in Australia. Many photonic-based companies collapsed, and many of my friends had been laid off from more than one company while I was sequestered in the university laser labs.

However, this meant that when I completed my PhD, there were not many opportunities for industry employment. Fortunately, an offer suddenly came to join a patent firm in Sydney as a trainee attorney. It allowed me to stay close to family, so I took it initially as a temporary measure until the photonics industry in Australia recovered. A partner in the firm had a photonics client and needed someone who was more familiar with the technology, so it worked out perfectly. Now, I have been working as an attorney for nearly 17 years and have been fortunate to be with Wrays for the last five years.

Because of the strong technical knowledge required, to become a patent attorney requires a degree in a scientific discipline, as well as legal qualifications including a Masters in Intellectual Property Law. Usually, the law degree is done part-time over two or three years while gaining practical experience as a trainee attorney in a patent firm.

I have also been an active member of the AIP, starting as a committee member in 2016, moving up to Treasurer of the NSW Branch since the 2017-18 financial year. I joined the AIP to connect more closely with the physics industry, and to provide the industry with quality support for ongoing education and resources for physics students. I thoroughly enjoy giving something back to the community which helped me to get where I am now.

Meet Tamara Martin, May's Hidden Physicist

Employer: The Naval Shipbuilding College

Job title and description: Education and Training Director, responsible for leading the Sydney office to support the college in educating a targeted, skilled workforce for the construction and maintenance of the Australian Naval fleet.

My career story so far:

I worked within UNSW’s semiconductor nanofabrication facilities as part of my Honours project in quantum physics at the University of Sydney (USyd). I was then offered a role as Process Engineer at the Australian National Fabrication Facility.

From there, I observed the untapped potential of university research that was sitting, waiting to be shared with industry for application. I was fortunate to be taken under the wing of the CEO and Board Members to learn about the business operations. I shifted my focus to MBA rather than PhD and took a job with setting up Sydney Nano, a multidisciplinary institute, at USyd. During this time, I commenced my MBA and was using my workplace as a test bed for my business learnings.

I then moved over to a Government role, within the Ministry of Health, where I managed complaints about healthcare professionals. This insight into the health sector was an appropriate segue to my role within the Quality Department at Cochlear. After one year and well timed with the completion of my MBA, I took the role as Industry and Innovation Manager for the UNSW’s Faculty of Engineering. Here I enjoyed building new connections and strengthening earlier relationships to build a dynamic network of like-minded (and not so like-minded) individuals to bounce ideas off and grow our understanding of how to innovate and bring value to industry from the role of a university.

This led me to meet the Director of the Naval Shipbuilding Institute, where this current role became available.

What I have learned is to always keep an open mind about what may appear as an opportunity, to leverage your network and build a strong cohort of mentors.

Meet Dr John Innis, June's Hidden Physicist

Employer: EPA Tasmania

Job title and description: Senior Scientific Officer, Air Monitoring

I co-ordinate Tasmania’s ambient air pollution measurement programs. This includes working with instruments and data analysis, reporting and interacting with a range of stakeholders (including the public), contributing to national work programs through various committees, and some strategic planning.

My career story so far:

I initially completed a B.Ed.(Sci) in 1981 – a four year science teacher training degree at what was then called Melbourne State College (now part of the University of Melbourne). Then decided I wanted to keep studying. I was fortunate to be accepted into the honours year in physics at Monash University and then completed a PhD there – both with a speciality in observational astrophysics. I had two really good supervisors: Keith Thompson and Denis Coates. Any problems that Keith couldn’t solve on the back of an envelope or with a graph pad (and sometimes a slide rule!) Denis would logically ‘nut out’ in an overnight mental batch-process. I gained great insights into how to tackle physics problems from Denis and Keith. I had access to the Monash Observatory near Emerald, and travelled to Siding Spring and Mount Stromlo.

After my PhD I did a term of teaching back at Melbourne State College then had a short stint at CSIRO Radiophysics in Sydney (and got to use ‘the dish’ for a week). Then I started a post doc in stellar seismology and exo-planets (in the days before any had been discovered) at the University of Birmingham, UK with a remarkable physicist and wonderful gentleman named George Isaak. That was a lot of fun (and hard work). I stayed on for a second post doc, and learnt an enormous amount from George and the group there. We used telescopes in South Africa, the Canary Islands, and even back in Australia. We didn’t have any clear detections of acoustic oscillations in stars (except for Arcturus) nor find any exo-planets, but I think we really explored the limits of technology and contributed a bit to the field in the early days. It’s also been fascinating to watch the transition of this field from ‘fringe’ to ‘mainstream’ astronomy. A few years after I left Birmingham, George received both the Hughes Medal of the Royal Society and the Herschel Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society.

I decided I wanted to return to Australia. Luck was with me as I managed to fulfil a long-standing hope and was selected by the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) to be the upper atmosphere physicist at Mawson station, Antarctica, for 1993. As it turned out, that was the last year there was a wintering physicist position there and also the last year there were dogs on station. It was a remarkable year with a remarkable group of people. I had a research program studying the thermodynamics of the high-latitude thermosphere, as well as running instruments for other projects. I found I could transfer a lot of the experience I had from measuring stellar atmospheres to the work on the earth’s atmosphere – but also I had a lot to learn in the new field. Again, it was my colleagues, Pene Greet at the AAD, and Peter Dyson at Latrobe, who led me along the way. The Antarctic bug had then completely bitten – my wife, Petra (a glaciologist) and I wintered Davis station in 1999. We then moved to Alaksa for two years as Petra had work there.

In 2002 we both found employment in Hobart. I rejoined the AAD in the atmospheric LIDAR project. I called on my astronomy background to design the optical receivers for two commercial telescopes and spent two further summers at Davis station. At the expiration of that contract in 2007 I counted myself very fortunate to obtain a fixed-term one with what became EPA Tasmania, working on the measurement of air pollution.

I’m still there. Our main air pollutant is smoke – mostly from residential heating in winter but also from bushfires and planned burns. With my team, we’ve substantially increased the measurement-base of air pollution data by going from two ambient air monitoring stations in 2007 to 35. Our real-time air network now extends over a significant part of the state, and is an important information source for the public, and for public health responses. We’ve also developed new analysis tools and new ways to understand and communicate the data. Underlying this has been a very strong physical-science base and a scientific approach. Other Australian jurisdictions have directly adopted some aspects we pioneered in Tasmania. This contributed to their ability to respond to the Black Summer bushfires.

Bringing a strong physics background and experience in measurement and data analysis to air quality work has significantly reshaped the way we view air pollution in Tasmania. There are still knowledge gaps and other issues to be addressed, but the ability we have now to provide hard data and comprehensive analysis to these problems has been almost revolutionary. I am hoping the approach we have taken will have influence for some years to come.

In 2019 John received the Clean Air Medal, the highest award of the Clean Air Society of Australia and New Zealand (CASANZ), which is the peak body for Air Quality professionals in Australia and New Zealand.

Meet Errol Hunt, July's Hidden Physicist

Employer: ARC Centre of Excellence in Future Low-Energy Electronics Technologies (FLEET)

Job title and description: Senior Communications Coordinator

I share news about FLEET’s research with various external audiences, including the public, scientific and general media, industry, collaborators and schools. I also coordinate internal communications, which is a huge challenge for a geographically separated Centre of Excellence, and even more so in 2020!

My career story so far:

My school career advisor once told me, “You can’t be both a writer and a scientist, Errol. You have to choose one or the other.” #worstcareeradvice

I chose science, so after a year with NZ Electricity testing high-voltage equipment in the dank bowels of remote hydro-electric stations, I went to uni and studied physics, including a couple of stints with industry.

Post-uni, I had a lot of fun in an industry research centre, modelling and measuring heat flow and magneto-hydrodynamics in aluminium reduction cells. I loved the problem-solving aspect – coming up with new ways to measure molten-metal velocities, magnetic fields or solid crust formations. This was all accomplished in relatively hostile conditions: perched over fuming 1000ºC molten cryolite, in magnetic fields strong enough to occasionally trip you up by your steel-cap boots.

I abandoned science a while after that to join the travel publishing industry, including on-the-road guidebook research gigs in the Cook Islands and New Zealand, ghost-writing a book on the effects of climate change in Tuvalu, and being coordinating author on the company’s first multi-country guide to the South Pacific.

Mostly, I commissioned work by other authors. These included some personal heroes, such as Booker prize winning novelist Keri Hulme, writing about the traditional Polynesian homeland of Hawaiki, historian James Belich on NZ history, and All Black Tana Umaga on Wellington cafes.

Post travel-industry I decided to prove my old school careers advisor wrong, and combine my two career streams of science and writing – thus, science-communications.

I discovered I got much more enjoyment from talking to other people about their science than I’d ever got from doing my own, and so a career in science-comms was born.

Since then, I’ve talked to scientists about their work in space weather and climate extremes, immunology, coral reef health, coal dust, and black holes. I’ve learned how to run events (including some with the AIP), and written short articles on antibiotic resistance, solar panels, habitat restoration, and physics (lots about physics…).

I regularly write up FLEET science for non-specialist audiences, and I’ve written a Year 12 textbook chapter on gravitation.

I’ve also helped develop and deliver a Year 10 unit on future computing, working with teachers and FLEET scientists to develop and guest-present the material. That was a fantastic experience.

I’m looking for ways to do more of this, including in schools that don’t always get these opportunities.

My latest passion is training scientists to do their own comms. Our Centre’s outreach projects have been really key in this. Explaining their science to schoolkids helps our members explain it to potential industry collaborators, or politicians, or funding partners.

I’d also like to keep proving that bad careers advice wrong, and persuade more people that it’s not necessary to choose between science and writing, or other artistic endeavours.

I’m more passionate about awakening an appreciation of science in non-scientists than I am about persuading more kids to pursue a career in science. I think a science-engaged public is better equipped to sift and debunk misinformation, and is more likely to elect science-engaged politicians.

Whāia te mātauranga hei oranga mō koutou. Study what you’re passionate about.


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