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Once a physicist: Ben Cowie

27 Jun 2019 Tushna Commissariat
Taken from the June 2019 issue of Physics World. Members of the Institute of Physics can enjoy the full issue via the Physics World app.

Ben Cowie opened a cycling specialist shop and café – London Bicycle Café – in Ontario, Canada, in 2017

Ben Cowie

What sparked your initial interest in physics?

I was initially interested in medical physics as an undergraduate, as our campus at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, had a nuclear reactor on site. I ended up studying isotope geochemistry of light stable elements, which isn’t too far from the medical-isotope field.

What did your degrees focus on, and did you ever consider a permanent academic career?

Following an undergraduate degree in geophysics and earth sciences, I went on to receive my PhD in geochemistry from the University of Calgary, in 2013. I did pursue an academic career for a few years, as a postdoctoral fellow, and later a research assistant, at Harvard University, in earth history and science. My research ranged from applied questions regarding pollution and hydrogeology, to working with NASA on planetary exploration missions, to basic questions such as “How do we make higher-precision measurements on difficult rare isotopes?”

How did you get interested in public transport and urban cycling?

Throughout grad school we all rode bikes and took the bus because it was cheap, and we were all poor! By the time I had a little more money, those habits had already stuck. I realized it was mostly about my personal health and the pleasure that riding my bike to work every day brought me. Even in the winters on the Canadian Prairie, riding a bike brought me happiness. That’s why I still do it today. And I realized that I want to give people the tools to get around the city comfortably by bike, and to share my knowledge of urban cycling.

What were some of the challenges in moving from physics to setting up a specialist shop like London Bicycle Cafe?

So many things. I knew very little about things like real estate, marketing and finance, which are all essential for good business. But I had great coaches and we recruited amazing staff. I thought that if I could learn and discover new things in science, running a business couldn’t be that hard, could it? It turns out that a bit of happy ignorance and hard work goes a long way.

What’s it like day-to-day, running the bike café?

During our busy season it’s a little bit of everything. I’m pulling shots of espresso in the mornings, working on bikes and doing some sales in the afternoons, maybe squeaking in some time for marketing or social media in there somewhere. When you run a small business you’re all the jobs: chief of accounting, sales, service and sanitation.

How has your physics background been helpful in this work, if at all?

The answer is always maths, and writing. I’m pretty sure we have a more sophisticated business model than businesses larger than us, and writing proposals to business financing entities is way easier than writing grants to the National Science Foundation. Having a quantitative background helps make your business case much stronger than those without.

Any advice for today’s students?

Follow your heart. My business is more about having an opportunity to live in the same city as my partner and be close to my family, than anything else. As much as I love what I do for work, it doesn’t feel as important as other things in my life. Science always feels more important than it probably is, and developing your life outside your job is essential, too.

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