While Jodie's Australian-wide tour is being finalised, we were able to ask some 'get to know you' questions about Jodie and her work.
What inspired you to become a physicist?
At my high school in country Victoria all the kids who were classified as ‘clever’ were strongly encouraged into the science and maths subjects. So I took chemistry, biology, physics and maths. This turned out to be a good fit as I found science both interesting and fun- in particular the pracs were really fun. And it way easier for me than writing long essays where there was no right answer (how on earth to deal with that?). The deal was sealed when I was in Year 10 or 11 I went on one of those camps for science kids at Monash University. I had a ball, met lots of other kids who were also interested in science so then it was just a question of what type of science? Physics ended up winning the day for the somewhat trivial reasons that I found chemistry uninspiring in school and there were too many big words to spell in biology! Plus Physics was the most mathematical of the sciences and I also enjoyed that aspect of the work. So here I am!
Who would you say your Physics hero is?
I have been asked this question in a job interview before and it is a really great question. When I was growing up I greatly admired many scientists who were not physicists - the environmentalist David Suzuki and the giant of natural history David Attenborough for instance. Actually I don’t think I knew any Physicists as apart from Einstein and Newton – it was well before Brian Cox’s time! Then I read some of Richard Feynman books and he was my hero for a while. But now, given I am lucky enough work as a physicist (pinches self!), I am constantly surrounded by amazing scientist and my real heroes are much closer and more personal. For instance, I admire the way Prof Marvin Cohen at UC Berkeley works so effectively with his students and only takes 2-3 students on at a time because he doesn’t feel he can have a close relationship with a large group while still producing remarkable results. I admire the way Dr Guoyin Shen, the head of the High Pressure Sector at Argonne National Lab takes the time to chat with the groups visiting his beamline and gently offers his scientific insights and experience. I admire the work of Dr Katie Mack at Melbourne University for her strong outreach work on her own terms and closest to home I really do admire my mentor Prof Jim Williams at ANU who has simply trusted in me from the beginning and who has taught me so much in terms of both science and life.
What do you think has been the most exciting discovery (in Physics?) of the last 10 years?
I guess you would have to say the discovery of Dark Matter and Dark Energy is the most exciting discovery in physics for some time. Really, how can you go past the discovery of ~95% of the universe? Even if you argue that this has zero impact on our daily lives, and indeed by definition you cannot interact with Dark Matter and Energy so this is very true, such big discoveries really do help inspire the public and are the stuff of big scientific dreams.
But if I can be allowed a second place, I would like to take an example from my own field of condensed matter physics (sometimes called ‘materials science’ – it is basically the science of ‘stuff’!). Currently thousands of materials scientists all over the world are tackling one of the major challenges of our generation – how to generate and store enough clean energy to run our planet. In the past 10 years the advances in solar and battery technologies have been remarkable. However, it is hard to point to one specific scientific discovery from one specific scientific group or person that has made the difference. The truth is that the idea of a single ‘big’ discovery by a single scientist is not how much of modern science works. The real advances come from large groups of scientists all contributing a small solution to the problem. So perhaps this is not as exciting as Dark Matter and Dark Energy – but you can argue it is a lot more important for the future of the human race.
One of your areas of expertise is in nanoindentation, can you tell us a little about that?
Certainly! Nanoindentation is essentially a method to measuring how things deform when you poke them, and, as prefix ‘nano’ suggests, we can do this at really small scales. How small? Well a nanometre is mind-bogglingly small. So small it basically impossible for the human brain to visualise – we are talking about the scale of atoms - a single gold atom is about one third of a nanometre. Anyway back to the nanoindenter. This instrument uses a specially shaped diamond to ‘poke’ materials at the nanoscale. Depending on the force applied to the diamond tip, and how deep the diamond tip gets pushed into the sample, we can gain lots of useful information like the mechanical properties of material being poked at the nanoscale. And why do we care about that? Well one of the fascinating quirks of nature is that as the scale of objects shrinks down to the nanoscale, their physical properties actually change. This is the basis of nanoscience and nanotechnology. So something that is ‘soft’ at a normal human length scale might actually be quite ‘hard’ at the nanoscale.
One topic that you’re covering in your lecture is super-hard materials, how do these materials impact on our daily lives?
Many many scientists and engineers are working on making better, stronger and harder materials. We rely on such advanced materials everyday – we just don't always see how amazing they are and far technology has come. Superhard materials such as diamond, sapphire, cubic boron-nitride and other materials are used as thin-films, coating, cutting tools and in a vast number of applications that require hard, wear-resistant materials – from a coating on an artificial heart, to the inside of a fusion reactor to the face of a watch or phone. (Although having dropped a phone recently I reckon there is still lots of work to do!)
Any advice for aspiring young scientists?
My advice is to always hang in there. One of the interesting and challenging aspects to establishing a career in science is that there is not one clear path to success. This can appear super scary to a young person thinking about starting out in the field but it is actually a huge advantage. Just think about it. If there are lots of paths available you should be able to find the one that best suits you.
So hang in there if you fail a few subjects - we have all been there! Hang in there if you aren’t dux of your school - you don't have to be the smartest kid in the state to do science. Hang in there if your experiments are going wrong or if you feel there are no jobs to apply for when you graduate. Remember that a career in science is diverse and can range from the laboratory to the classroom to industry and government. And importantly hang in there because of ‘science’ and the good it can do society. Science really needs people with diverse backgrounds and skill sets. Science needs people who are ‘people-people’ as well as strong logical thinkers. Science needs people who can see the opportunities that a discovery could uncover and people who can run complex instruments while teaching a group of students at the same time. We need all types in science – so if you hang in there chances are you will find your niche that will enable you to contribute your love of science to create a better world. And what can be better than that!