Interview: Dr. Jessica Boland
Jessica has just moved to the University of Manchester to start a lecturership in Functional materials and devices. She has moved from the University of Regensburg, where she received a Humboldt postdoctoral research fellowship to investigate the ultrafast carrier dynamics of topological insulators via near-field multi-terahetz spectroscopy. Previously she carried out her PhD at the University of Oxford, where she developed novel techniques based on terahertz spectroscopy for characterising doping concentrations in semiconductor nanowires. She also helped develop novel nanowire-based terahertz devices, including ultrafast optically switchable terahertz modulators. She is currently working on developing near field microscopy in the low frequency terahertz range to investigate the optoelectronic properties of 2D materials and topological insulator nanowires.
1. What inspired you to pursue a career in physics?
I guess I had a very unusual route into physics, as I originally wanted to become a professional ballerina. I was already dancing with the English Youth Ballet and was considering taking the next step in this career by joining a ballet boarding school. However, turns out, I was too small (5ft) to become a professional ballerina, so started looking for other career options. I enjoyed several subjects at school, including classics, languages and maths, and struggled to decide on which I would find the most interesting. I thought I had settled on studying maths, as I loved problem solving, but was then encouraged by maths teacher to take something more applied like physics, as I would forever keep asking her why we were using that piece of maths she had just taught. I decided to give physics a shot and I have never looked back. There is always another problem to solve and I love that challenge of finding an application to your research.
2. Who are your role models?
I don’t really have a conventional role model, like Marie Curie, but find role models in the scientists around me. My colleagues around me all have qualities that I aspire to and they form everyday role models to me. I was also fortunate to meet Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who discovered pulsars. Her attitude to science – ‘just do your best, work hard and keep fighting to do good science’ is intoxicating and an inspiration.
3. How did you get to where you are in your career path?
I grew up in Walsall, UK and began studying physics at Queen Mary’s High School in my hometown. I studied physics to A-level, alongside maths, latin, French and german, before moving to the University of Exeter to study physics further at an undergraduate level. This was a very challenging time for me, as I have a hearing impairment. While it proved challenging during my school years, university was a step up and I had to navigate studying in this environment. As I was the first hearing-impaired student to study physics at the time, new assistive devices needed to be installed and new practices needed to be put in place for me to access the course. There was therefore an adjustment period settling into studying physics at university. I undertook a Masters degree with industrial experience and spent a year in industry, developing new diffuse reflectors for reflective liquid crystal displays at Hewlett Packard Labs. I had some wonderful mentors here, Prof Steve Kitson, Dr Ariosto Matranga and Dr Tim Taphouse, who encouraged me to pursue a career in science after my studies. My masters project was conducted in microwave plasmonics under the supervision of Prof Roy Sambles, who encouraged me to persevere through challenges and to always aim as high as you can. Next, I moved to the University of Oxford to conduct a PhD in Condensed Matter Physics, using terahertz spectroscopy to study the optoelectronic properties of semiconductor nanowires. During this time, I had 3 amazing mentors: my supervisor, Prof. Michael Johnston; and collaborators, Prof. Laura Hertz and Prof. Anna Fontcuberta I Morral, who pushed me to give academia a chance and see what a postdoctoral position was like. I then moved to Regensburg to work with Professor Rupert Huber on terahertz microscopy and received an Alexander von Humboldt fellowship. Thanks to help from my mentors, I was encouraged to being applying to lectureship positions from the start of my postdoc and was appointed a lecturership in functional materials and devices at the University of Manchester.
4. What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I am really fortunate to have worked on many cool projects during my career so far – from designing new plasmonic metamaterials in the microwave range for radar cloaking to developing reflective liquid crystal displays. However, I would say that the coolest project I am working on is my current one – developing terahertz microscopy to look at topological insulators for use in devices! I guess that most researchers would think this! The joy of research is that there is always another cool project waiting around the corner.
5. What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?
When I was awarded the Institute of Physics Jocelyn Bell Burnell medal and prize. It was an amazing honour and nice to receive recognition for my research and promotion of underrepresented groups in the field.
6. What is a “day in the life” of Jessica like?
A typical day would consist of setting up and aligning experimental setups, taking data, supervising students and teaching undergraduate courses.
7. What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
I would like to establish a strong research platform in the use of terahertz spectroscopy and microscopy for material characterisation and become an international leader in this area. I also would love to make science more accessible and inclusive for people with disability and promote those in under-represented groups.
8. What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
I love travelling and exploring, so when I am not doing research I like to pick a new place to visit each weekend. Whether it is a new local bar/restaurant or a European city, I try to explore as much as possible. I also enjoy singing and reading and am currently learning British Sign Language to a deeper level in my spare time.
9. What advice do you have for other women interested in physics?
If you enjoy it, then stick with it and take it as far as you want to. Keep going for as long as you enjoy it.
10. What should be done to increase the number of women in physics?
This is always a hard questions, as there are several different directions to take to increase the number of women in physics. A lot of focus is on increasing outreach and promoting female role models in schools to increase the intake at an undergraduate level. However, there is a ‘leaky pipeline’ in physics, with the number of women in academia reducing from undergraduate to professor level and the majority of women pursuing non-science related careers after university. To ensure that this reduction is purely due to personal choice, I believe that the following schemes could help alleviate the ‘leaky pipeline’ and increase the number of women in physics: dual career network, child care, protected maternity leave, long-term contracts and gender equality in funding and representation.
Foto-Rechte: (1) Jessica Boland, (2) Jessica Boland