IOP puts the spotlight on early-career physicist

28 October 2015

The Institute of Physics (IOP) has decided to give a fuller picture of its Early Career Award winners through profiles of each of them, and the second of these focuses on Dr Edmund Kelleher.

Dr Edmund Kelleher

The IOP presents three Early Career Awards each year to physicists who are in the first 12 years of their professional lives, allowing for career breaks – the Maxwell Medal and Prize, the Moseley Medal and Prize and the Paterson Medal and Prize.

This year the Paterson Medal and Prize, which is given for distinguished research in applied physics, has been awarded to Edmund Kelleher, whose research interests lie at the interface of fundamental and applied linear optics.

Kelleher is a Royal Academy of Engineering Research Fellow at Imperial College London. Following the award of his PhD in 2012, he held an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Doctoral Prize Fellowship at Imperial and spent a further year as a postdoctoral research associate supported by an EPSRC Pathways to Impact grant. In 2013 he was awarded a junior research fellowship from Imperial and the fellowship that he currently holds.

We asked him about his interests and career to date.

What first attracted you to science and/or engineering, or have you always been interested in them?

I always preferred science- and maths-based subjects in school, reading fact rather than fiction, documentaries on television, and trying to understand how and why things worked the way they did.

An early memory of an interest in optics is being given a magnifying glass – I must have been six or seven. After using it to look at the detail of small objects, I realised I could also use it as a condenser to intensify the brightness of sunlight. I took great delight in burning holes through paper simply using a piece of ground glass and the power of the Sun – perhaps this was an indicator that I would spend my professional life developing high-brightness light sources!

Your initial degree was in electronic engineering, but then after an MSc in photonics and optoelectronic devices you went on to do a PhD in physics. Did your interests change during your studies or did you see these moves as a natural progression within your field?

I started my undergraduate degree with a broad, general interest in science, but a course on device physics in my second year sharpened my focus on optoelectronics and light-based technologies. This motivated me to pursue this avenue of study, and I decided to continue my training in this area through a master’s programme at St Andrews and Heriot-Watt universities in photonics and optoelectronic devices. I guess this formally punctuated a transfer of disciplines from electronic engineering to physics, but I think photonics is a field of research that straddles both, so this move felt like quite a natural progression, driven by my specific interests.

Modern research seems to be moving towards a more multi-disciplinary approach anyway, so having members of a research team with distinct, yet complementary, training and skills is a great advantage.

You received two prizes for published papers and were runner-up in an entrepreneur’s award when you were still only half way through your PhD studies. How did it feel to have such early success – did it spur you on to further achievement or did it set a rather high benchmark to live up to?

I was very lucky throughout my PhD to be guided by, and benefit from, interactions with excellent mentors – all experts in their respective fields – not least my PhD supervisor, Professor Roy Taylor.

I was fortunate to experience recognition from my broader peer group through prizes and awards early in my PhD studies, and I was highly motivated by working on a daily basis alongside colleagues with a shared drive and enthusiasm; this led to a very strong and healthy group ethos.

International collaboration seems to have been a hallmark of your career so far, with visiting researcher positions in Singapore and then Canada during your PhD, a current research fellowship with Nanjing University in China and an industrial partnership with a company in Germany. How important has this international experience been in your research, and do you expect this to be a dimension of your work in the future?

I greatly value the collaborations that I have, and I’ve learned and benefited a huge amount as a result of the opportunities and networks that they’ve created. I believe that it’s always very valuable to experience work in other research labs – even subtleties in the application of well-established techniques provide a fresh perspective on problems and often lead to breakthroughs, new ideas and innovation.

Since assembling multi-disciplinary teams that offer a distinct yet complementary set of research skills for ambitious research programmes is so valuable, I’m quite sure that collaborative networks will remain a strong feature of my research work in the future.

The Paterson Medal and Prize is given for “distinguished research in applied physics, including work which has the potential to enhance economic or social well-being” and your citation says that your work is “at the vanguard of modern photonics technology”. Can you describe some of the possibilities that might be opened up by the advances you have made?

One of the really exciting areas where my research could have a big impact is in healthcare, for the diagnosis and treatment of diseases including cancers. As a broader research community we’re using light, particularly laser-light, in increasingly ingenious ways to enable us to gain a deeper understanding of our biology. One example is super-resolution microscopy – for which last year’s Nobel Prize for Physical Chemistry was awarded – which allows us to look at very small features, such as individual molecules at the sub-cellular level.

I work closely with researchers at the frontier of biophotonics who are pioneering advanced microscopy instrumentation; my contribution is made by helping to enable their technologies by leveraging advanced ultrafast lasers.

I’m also working with colleagues at the University of British Columbia on developing a tool that will allow us to better understand the quantum properties of novel materials, including high-temperature superconductors, which could one day contribute to reshaping the future of computing.

Your web page describes the iSimulate: Fiber Toolkit for simulating and visualising problems in fibre optics, which you are developing with Robert Woodward. Are you involved in any efforts to commercialise this or any other aspects of your research?

When you work at the interface of fundamental and applied research, commercialisation is never far from your mind. At an early-stage of my PhD I was lucky enough to be involved in a team – led by my collaborators at the University of Cambridge – that was exploring the potential of commercialising our laser research. This was a valuable experience that continues to influence the way I approach evaluating the impact of my research.

In recent years, I’ve been involved in the development of a suite of software tools that are useful for both academics and industrialists engaged in the research and development of fibre laser sources and systems. We’re currently actively exploring the possibilities of commercialising this software.

You are a lecturer at a Doctoral Training Centre in Cambridge and teach in the optics lab and supervise postgraduates at Imperial – how far do you expect teaching to be a part of your career in the future?

I see teaching as an essential and integral part of a career in academic research. It’s extremely important that we continue to educate and inspire the next generation of research scientists. As a young academic, it’s also very valuable to practise communicating effectively what are sometimes complex ideas – this is a key part of the academic process of dissemination. Being able to explain a concept, and convey why the research is valuable to society, is not always straightforward but its importance cannot be over-stated.

Have you been involved in outreach to any extent, and do you expect to be in the future?

Outreach is another extremely important aspect of my professional activity. Dissemination through publication in technical journals is a key avenue for communicating research, but predominantly this means the audience is specialists engaged in the scientific pursuit. Through outreach one can communicate directly with members of the public, increasing the visibility of one’s research, while promoting science and technology. It’s also a fantastic opportunity to practise explaining sometimes complex processes to a lay audience.

At Imperial there are many opportunities to engage in outreach activities, eg I’ve been involved a number of times in the Imperial Festival, an event that attracts many hundreds of visitors who include alumni and interested members of the public alike.

In 2013, I started an initiative called Exploring Photonics, aimed at communicating current photonics research activities to late-stage high-school students, many of whom may be considering studying physics/engineering at university (although this wasn’t a requirement).

With 2015 being nominated the International Year of Light by UNESCO, there have been even more opportunities to engage in outreach, and the Exploring Photonics format has been adapted by the Photonics Group at Imperial to further increase accessibility and participation in the workshop.

Where is your research going next, or is it impossible to look that far ahead?

I have a very clear research agenda mapped out until the end of 2018: working on a five-year programme of research supported by the Royal Academy of Engineering with the title “Next generation short-pulse laser sources for the visible and ultraviolet”. I have very defined targets and milestones, with the ultimate goal of addressing the demand for compact, low-cost and efficient short-pulse, high-brightness (ie laser) light sources emitting light that covers the visible and ultraviolet range.

Recently this has been extended to include regions of the mid-infrared, where lasers are required for applications ranging from sensing to material processing. All three regions are typically “hard to access”, as there are limited laser-active materials that exist with emission bands in these regions, especially ones that fulfil the requirements of end users in, for example, medicine, who would like a so-called “turn-key”, low maintenance, low-cost and compact solution.

Beyond this, I’m extremely excited to see where my research takes me; the field of photonics is relatively young, and yet the size of the global community engaged in light-based technologies, and the applications that have and will continue to benefit from this research, is vast. I’m looking forward to playing my part in its evolution.