Dr. Solveig Felton is a lecturer in the Centre for Nanostructured Media at Queen’s University, Belfast. Prior to this she was a lecturer in Electron Microscopy at Imperial College London, working in the Department of Materials, using transmission electron microscopy to study micromagnetic properties of materials. Catch Solveig on her Soapbox this saturday June 20th 2-5pm in Belfast, where she will be talking about “Spin Ice: Magnetism and Frustration: Fascinating magnetic properties due to frustrated interactions”.
SS: Solveig, how did you get to your current position?
SF: My career in science started with me doing an Engineering Masters degree in Materials Science at Uppsala University in Sweden. I loved it so much that I went on to do a Ph.D. in Solid State Physics studying magnetic materials, also at Uppsala University. After that I spent three and a half years doing a postdoc at University of Warwick, England, in the Electron Paramagnetic Resonance (EPR) and Diamond group in the Department of Physics; I studied point defects in diamond using both EPR and optical techniques. One of these point defects was the nitrogen vacancy centre, which colours diamonds pink and is investigated as a possible qubit in quantum computing. I moved from Warwick to Imperial College London, first for a postdoc studying magnetic organic materials for quantum computing, and then for a temporary lectureship using Lorentz Transmission Electron Microscopy (L-TEM) to study the magnetic microstructure of among other things artificial spin ice materials. Two years ago, I moved to my current position, and my research still concerns itself with magnetic properties of materials. Partly, I am still working on artificial spin ices, which is what I plan to talk about at the Soapbox Science event, and partly I am working collaboratively with the School of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering to study the magnetic properties of ionic liquids and materials synthesised in ionic liquids.
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
SF: I have two main inspirations for going into science: my mother and Sir Isaac Newton. My Mum always encouraged curiosity and whenever I asked about things she would say “Let’s find out!” and then help me do so, either by looking things up in a book or by testing them. The inspiration from Newton came in the form of a biography in my Physics textbook when I was about 14; there were a number of biographies of famous scientists in it, but the story that struck me was one about Newton finding that white light could be split into a spectrum by a prism. The book said that most people would think this was interesting, and show the pretty spectrum to their grandchildren, but Newton was a scientist so he directed the spectrum through a second prism to see what would happen, which as we know gives you white light again. Now, Newton was an excellent scientist, so he took things one step further, asking if this white light was the same as what he started with and stuck in a third prism, getting a spectrum again. This tale of not taking things for granted, instead doing experiments to find out if they are what they seem inspired me and it is something that I try to hold on to in my work as a scientist. (I don’t know if this story about Newton is true, but it rings true: it is the behaviour of a dedicated scientist and Newton certainly was that).
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research?
SF: I love how something that has been known since ancient times — magnetism — needs quantum mechanics to explain its origin. Despite the fact that we use magnetism for a number of things in our every day lives — sticking things to our fridge doors, storing data on our hard drives, navigating the world from geomagnetic fields — there are still plenty of things to find out.
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?
SF: One of my colleagues at Imperial took part in the first Soapbox Science event in London, and it sounded like an exciting and excellent way to communicate science to people who might not usually engage with it. So when I found out there was going to be an event here in Belfast, I thought it was great that this was spreading and wanted to take part.
SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? fear? thrill? anticipation?
SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
SF: I would like people to stop saying “You must be very clever!” when I tell them I am a physicist, and then go on to say they don’t understand it. I would like everyone to study sciences until they are at least 18, because they are so fundamental to the workings of our world and if you do understand them, they help you make sense of the world. Plus science is great fun! I feel that in giving young people the impression that science is difficult we do them a great disservice; they end up missing out on some much excitement, not to mention good job opportunities.
SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?
SF: Go for it! It is hard work, but very rewarding, both the research and the teaching. Also, remember that you are probably the world expert on whatever you did your PhD on, so don’t sell yourself short when you are applying for positions by not emphasising the wonderful things you have done and can do.