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Shedding light on the interfaces

22 May 2020
Taken from the May 2020 issue of Physics World. Members of the Institute of Physics can enjoy the full issue via the Physics World app.

Joe McEntee talks to surface scientist Karen Syres about striking a balance between teaching and research while also building visibility and connection with the scientific community  

Karen Syres is a regular visitor to synchrotron facilities like BESSY II.
Making light work Karen Syres is a regular visitor to synchrotron facilities like BESSY II (above), where she studies surfaces and interfaces using X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy and X-ray absorption techniques. (Courtesy: Karen Syres, UCLan)

Karen Syres is a scientist who operates at the interfaces: between physics and chemistry; between big science and fundamental molecular studies; and between her chosen academic specialism and the wider public understanding of that science. As a lecturer in physics at the Jeremiah Horrocks Institute at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) in Preston, UK, Syres fits the template of many early-career researchers. She juggles a significant teaching load alongside the treadmill of grant applications and the daily challenge of scaling her research programme in the emerging field of liquid surfaces. What works for Syres at the interfaces may also hold lessons for other early-career physicists and educators.

You focus on the physics and chemistry of surfaces. What are the drivers here?

I’m interested in how molecules bond to a surface, how they are orientated, how charge is transferred across interfaces. Most of my research is carried out in ultrahigh-vacuum (UHV) conditions at pressures of 10–10 mbar or thereabouts. That’s because we’re trying to detect electrons, for example, using X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy and we need to get our surfaces “atomically clean” before depositing the molecules we want to study. Fundamental studies such as this are important because what happens at the interface often dictates if a device will succeed. In solar cells, for example, the energy-band alignment between material layers determines how effectively charge is transferred, while the surface chemistry in biomedical implants can affect the healing time in patients.

Does your research have commercial implications?

Ionic liquids are a big part of my work. This class of salts shows great promise for transforming industrial processes such as gas-capture and separation, catalysis, corrosion protection and lubrication. They’re also attracting significant industry interest from developers of next-generation batteries and photovoltaic technologies.

In some respects, ionic liquids are similar to ionic solids – such as sodium chloride – but instead of simple ions they consist of bulky, asymmetric ions. Because those constituent ions don’t pack nicely, they tend to be liquid at room temperature – though they are more structured than most molecular liquids, and exhibit ordering at interfaces. There are millions of possible combinations of cations and anions that can be tuned to achieve various desired properties – liquid temperature range, conductivity, viscosity and hydrophilicity to name just a few. They can also be functionalized to perform a given task, such as reacting with carbon dioxide.

What attracted you to do physics at UCLan?

I love research and have always wanted to follow the academic path. After my MPhys and PhD in physics at the University of Manchester, I did a postdoc in the chemistry department at the University of Nottingham before my move to UCLan. What I like about UCLan is that it’s a small and supportive physics department with a real sense of community. It’s also great for the undergraduates, who get more one-to-one attention than they would in a larger department. 

How do you balance your roles as lecturer and research scientist?

During term-time, most of my working week is focused around undergraduate teaching. I lecture in condensed-matter physics, nuclear physics and foundation-level maths, plus there’s supervision of final-year undergraduates and their research projects. My role as year-one tutor means that I have an additional responsibility to support and mentor our new-intake physics students (20 in the current academic year).

The teaching dovetails with intense bursts of research activity during holiday periods – typically three or four visits every year to various big-science facilities across Europe. Like all academics, I sometimes need to work evenings and weekends to keep on top of other things – writing and marking exams, for example, and putting together grant proposals. Last year, I also had my first PhD student completion. It was a brilliant feeling, though I think I was more nervous than she was on the day of her viva.

How does that arrangement work in terms of efficiency and research outcomes?

Most of my research is carried out at European synchrotron facilities – including the Diamond Light Source in the UK, ASTRID in Denmark, BESSY II in Germany and MAX IV in Sweden – and generally on beamlines that support X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy and X-ray absorption techniques. More recently, I’ve also been using near-ambient-pressure beamlines that can accommodate these techniques in the millibar regime rather than UHV, where we normally work.

It’s an attractive way to do research because somebody else has the job of maintaining all the expensive equipment, while my colleagues and I just turn up for a week and use it. If the experiment goes as planned, you can easily get enough data for a chapter of a student’s thesis – hopefully enough for a journal paper as well. It’s always a team effort and is good training for the PhD students, in particular, to work with the resident beamline scientists and technicians.

It’s an attractive way to do research because somebody else has the job of maintaining all the expensive equipment

Beyond UCLan, you’re an active member of the UK surface-science community. How has this helped your research?

I joined the Thin Films and Surfaces Group of the Institute of Physics (which publishes Physics World) in 2014, when I was still a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham. I’m now vice-chair of the group and it’s provided all manner of opportunities to develop my broader skill set, expand my contacts network and build wider recognition in the field of surface science.

Not long after I took up my lectureship at UCLan, for example, I chaired a four-day conference called the Summer School on Nanoscience@Surfaces. It’s always stressful to organize and run an event, but this one proved a big success, attracting 85 delegates from 13 countries as well as many prominent speakers from the UK and overseas. We’re now running the summer school every two years as one of our flagship events. I’ve also been involved in starting up a new one-day meeting called Surface Science Day, which runs every year at a different UK university.

What about public outreach?

I enjoy getting involved in outreach activities, although planning them can be time-consuming. That said, I think we have a responsibility to communicate to the public what we are doing with taxpayers’ money and to try our best to inspire the next generation of scientists. At UCLan, for example, we hold the Lancashire Science Festival every year, pulling in around 13,000 visitors – school children for the first two days and then the general public for the final day. Since I’ve been in Preston, I’ve organized the physics stand for the festival, including a popular magnetic-levitation railway demonstration that I designed and built with the help of my PhD student. I’ve also taken some students to our UCLan Cyprus campus for the Cyprus Science Festival – an activity made doubly interesting by the language barrier. Sometimes with outreach activities I find myself trying to control a bunch of unruly children and I wonder why I thought it was a good idea. Then you speak to a young person who’s really excited about physics and it makes it all worthwhile.

What’s next for your research career?

I’m currently director of studies for two first-year PhD students – including one studentship I won through the DTA3/COFUND Marie Skłodowska-Curie programme – so the short-term goal is to supervise them to completion. Beyond that, the priority is to win some bigger grants, add a few postdocs to my team and gain wider international recognition for my research. I’m also keen to forge interdisciplinary and industry collaborations to see how my fundamental studies can complement more applied research efforts.

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