We caught up with Alex Robson, Senior Research Associate and one of our GISMO Innovation Fellows, who has a wealth of knowledge and experience in smart materials.
What is your role in GISMO?
My role is to liaise with companies, academics and the project team to help diagnose problems and challenges, identify where we can support businesses and apply our research, and to develop and deliver projects (whether in the lab myself or by supporting others). My specific role is in the surfaces and coatings theme and this aligns closely with my background in materials analysis, surface science and coating development.
Describe yourself in three words.
Practical, adaptable, responsible.
Who or what inspired you to a career in science?
A combination of science documentaries and some very enthusiastic teachers.
What qualifications do you hold?
PhD, MSc, MPhys.
How long have you worked at Lancaster University (and in what roles)?
I’ve worked at Lancaster University since I finished my PhD, in 2013. Originally, I came here as an undergraduate student in 2004 – and never got around to leaving.
Most of the work I’ve done has been in research roles (post-doctorate) on various projects, including surface (and near sub-surface) material analysis, microscopy, compound semiconductors and coating analysis and development.
I’ve also done a fair amount of business engagement on other ERDF projects, and much of my previous research work has involved industry interactions in one form or another.
What do you like most about working at Lancaster University?
The community. And being able to very quickly get out into the countryside!
What are you most looking forward to doing on the GISMO project?
Working with more companies!
What is your greatest/proudest achievement (in or outside work)?
Probably the outreach and public engagement activities that I got to be a part of over the last few years. As a member of the Quantum Engagement Team, we very successfully exhibited stands 3 years in a row at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition (2017-2019), and once at New Scientist Live (2018) – I was very heavily involved with both the exhibitions on “The Art of Isolation” (NSL 2018 and RS:SSE 2019).
What are your hobbies and interests outside work?
History (a lot of 19th century stuff at present) and painting toy soldiers – rather geeky, but both things that seem to work well during the lockdown.
What do you eat for breakfast most days?
Either toast or muesli.
What’s your favourite smart material – and why?
Do I have to have a favourite? On a practical point of view, thermoelectrics and piezoelectrics, because I’ve spent a lot of time working with or relying on these. In terms of what I think is cool? Ferrofluids and 2D materials.
What sort of problems can you help small businesses to solve?
Help to develop new (functional) coatings for products, analyse and characterise materials and surfaces, aid with identification of issues in processes and suggest solutions to these, develop prototypes and proof of concept studies. A couple of examples of work we’ve done in the past with companies include developing prototype selective area hydrophobic coatings, and confirming company suspicions of issues at interfaces between their substrates and coatings via cross-sectional microscopy.
What is your favourite piece of equipment in the Materials Science Institute – and why + what does it do/how can it help businesses?
Our X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS) system is a firm favourite. XPS is a quantitative surface (or near surface) analysis technique; essentially it can tell you the elemental composition of a material or coating and how those elements are bound. This makes it incredibly useful for research & product development for anything to do with surfaces and coatings, but it’s also very useful for quality control and testing.
What advice do you have for businesses that are not familiar with working with universities?
Please get in touch! Even if you’re not sure about what we do or how we might be able to help – there is a sizable team of people here who have a lot of experience in working with businesses, and part of the job is to work out how we can help (and hopefully build a successful relationship!).
You can find out more about Alex and his research on the Lancaster University Website.