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James Leadbeatter: Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund Awardee 2024

James is excited about the real-world benefits his research in nanophotonics could bring about – such as cleaning up the water supply and lowering greenhouse gases.

Physicist James Leadbeatter sitting at his desk working on a laptop

Tell us about your work – and what drives you

My area of research is nanophotonics – and more specifically metamaterials, which are small, manufactured structures created by layering very thin material films on each other. All materials have intrinsic properties that affect how light can propagate through them, but by stacking these materials on top of each other, we can change their properties and manipulate light.

My area of interest is focused on nanostructured metamaterials to create metaparticles, and to leverage new ways of controlling their optical behaviour. Under the supervision of Dr Jean-Sebastien Bouillard, my PhD will entail modelling and analysing new configurations of metaparticles for use in new sensing technologies with the hope that we will be able to detect pollutants in things such as water supplies more effectively.

I love the real-world implications my PhD could have on people’s daily lives and the possibility that experimentalists could be able to use my work to help people.

What drew you to this area of physics?

Growing up I was a massive sci-fi fan, with things like Star Wars being my bread and butter. If it had something made of light behaving in a weird way it had my full attention. Combining this with my family’s love for scientific TV and documentaries, such as MythBusters, I quickly became obsessed with wanting to learn and understand how the world works. My childhood dream was to build my own working lightsaber!

As I got older, I realised a lightsaber was slightly too far out of reach, but my love of learning and passion for light-matter interaction remained. I found that the more I learned about how light worked, the more interesting it became and the more there was still to learn.

When I got the opportunity to develop demonstrations for an event centred around light for sixth-form students, I once again found myself going down the rabbit hole of exploring the exciting phenomena that can occur when light interacts with matter in different ways.

This eventually led to my dissertation focusing on the nanoscale ultrafast interactions between light and magnetic materials, culminating in a general fascination with the complex behaviours of light and matter at tiny scales.

What is the potential impact of your work?

Controlling the optical behaviour of materials has many uses in a variety of real-world applications, ranging from massive improvements in the sensitivity of sensor technology, to improving fibre-optic cables and passive thermal management techniques which could lower our greenhouse gas emissions.

By effectively modelling and exploring new configurations of metamaterials, we can gain a deeper understanding of how to optimise them so that they can be manufactured and the public can then benefit from them.

By creating a robust model for how metamaterials interact with light we’ll be able to examine currently unexplored geometries and leverage new applications, which could in turn lead to improvements that have yet to be seen and further human understanding of the field.

What does winning the scholarship mean to you – and what difference will it make?

I'm honestly amazed and ecstatic that I received the funding support – I doubt I’d have been able to pursue a PhD without it. Both the financial challenges and needing to remain at a fairly local institution would have made pursuing this career path incredibly difficult without the support.

Since I first had the opportunity to do research and teach young people about physics through outreach events, I’ve wanted to follow a career in lecturing. The support of this fund has made it possible for me to continue on this path. I can’t wait to continue researching the field that has fascinated me since childhood and continue developing outreach events and demonstrations to allow more young people to experience the wonders of physics.

What challenges have you faced to get to this point? Being someone with (primarily) hidden disabilities has been one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced throughout my education. Having missed so much time in key years at school due to hospital appointments and illness, I was constantly falling behind my peers. This left me with large gaps in my understanding of certain areas.

“As I got older, I realised a lightsaber was slightly too far out of reach, but my love of learning and passion for light-matter interaction remained.”

Due to the nature of my heart condition, I’ve had many teachers label me as a lost cause with some going as far as to say: “You have no chance passing your GCSE physics. You should focus on something you have a better chance with.” Luckily, alongside this I’ve also been fortunate to have teachers such as Mr Cowley, Ms Roxburgh and Mr Ashcroft, among others, who supported me throughout school to ensure I didn’t fall too far behind, as well as Mr Lunn who fought my corner so that I could continue to study A-level mathematics.

Due to my mum being disabled and growing up having to help care for her instilled in me a strong work ethic and possibly an overly stubborn nature. Any criticism I received only pushed me to work harder. When I got to the University of Hull I wanted to prove that I could achieve great things. I was fortunate enough to be welcomed into an extremely supportive environment, so I was able to exceed my expectations and receive multiple awards for academic achievement throughout my undergraduate studies.

What would you say to those who have also faced barriers to following their dreams to pursue physics at university and beyond?

Not even you know your own limitations so why should you let others tell you what they are? We all learn and see the world through our own lens. The world isn’t built for people who don’t view it from the “correct” angle but it’s the people who can come in from different angles with new ideas that make the biggest innovations and discoveries. Keep pushing forward. Seeing things differently doesn’t mean you see the wrong thing. Sometimes the immediate path is obscured but that doesn’t mean it won’t be easier to follow on the other side.

Why do you think diversity in physics is so important?

Diversity among people studying physics and those who are passionate about physics also means there will be diversity in how problems are viewed. Physics is complex by its nature and there are multiple ways to tackle and explain a problem while coming to similar results. The only way to truly understand physics is to study problems from the different viewpoints of many diverse groups of people. It would be a shame if we missed out on a groundbreaking discovery by losing a great mind to a self-imposed barrier to entry.

What would you say to someone thinking about applying to the fund?

If you think you could have been disadvantaged in any way then you should apply. The fund’s entire purpose is to level the playing field for all minority groups rather than the main groups that usually get more support to pursue PhDs.

Going through your own achievements and what you went through to get where you are today can be one of the most reassuring things you could ever do. The openness and willingness the fund has to discuss and see things from other viewpoints was a breath of fresh air. Just be true to yourself and who you are. You’ve got this far for a reason and believing that is the first big step on your journey.