In 2008, British national Phillip Dale arrived in Luxembourg as the first ever FNR ATTRACT Fellow, setting up his energy materials (physics.uni.lu) group at the University of Luxembourg. Ten years on, we spoke to Phillip about learning you can’t always win; why he feels a strong sense of responsibility toward his students; and his gradual transition from a chemist to a physicist.
Phillip, what is your scientific background in a nutshell?
“I was trained as a chemistry student, and then learned about semiconductors and electrochemistry during my Postdoc in Bath. Since moving to Luxembourg, I moved more towards physics and I now refer to myself as a physicist, but you could say I am stuck in the middle – to my chemistry colleagues, I am now a physicist, but to my physicist colleagues I am still a chemist.”
You were the very first FNR ATTRACT Fellow – how did you end up in Luxembourg?
“I had originally applied for a job position as Professor in Renewable Energy / Photovoltaics. The role went to Professor Susanne Siebentritt – who still heads up the lab – but she asked me if I would like to join her in Luxembourg. This was around the time ATTRACT was launched, so I prepared my application while still in England and won the first FNR ATTRACT Fellowship.
“Susanne was my mentor when I started, and the fact that she is an expert in physics and my strengths were more in chemistry, meant that we have been able to complement each other’s knowledge and offer different perspectives on common projects.”
Were you familiar with Luxembourg before you came here?
“No, I knew nothing at all about Luxembourg. I had lived in Germany before, so I didn’t have a problem moving abroad. I thought ‘why not?’ – I was young, looking for a job, and not really tied down to anything, so I decided to go on this adventure.”
“I knew nothing at all about Luxembourg. I didn’t have a problem moving abroad – I thought ‘why not?’ – I was young, looking for a job, and not really tied down to anything, so I decided to go on this adventure.”
When you first started as an FNR ATTRACT Fellow, were there any of your new responsibilities that you found challenging?
“Recruitment was new to me. I felt a big sense of responsibility, because you have the possibility to change somebody’s life, and the responsibility to care for that person. In my eyes, it’s my job to improve them, or help them fulfil their potential. It is really great to see when this works.”
“Applying for my own grants was also a new thing for me. At the time, I felt no pressure because I won almost all the grants I applied for in the first five or six years. Then I was unsuccessful a few times and that was new. Being a researcher can be compared to being self-employed, and you need the grants to keep the ‘company’ afloat – and to keep your team.
“A grant allows you to hire people. Not getting a grant means you cannot evolve your ideas, it means you cannot keep up with your field. Therefore writing grant proposals can become quite stressful, if you let it.”
Teaching is also part of being an FNR ATTRACT Fellow – how has this evolved for you now that you have had some years of practice?
“I started by teaching lab classes and then I progressed to giving full lectures. I have now taught three different courses, and I am writing my fourth course. Here I also feel a sense of responsibility – I want to do a good job and understand the material, which can be tricky because I am a chemist by training, but I work in the physics department. I started with two chemistry courses, a subject which I know like the back of my hand. A few years ago I did my first physics course, but I started with a rather soft physics topic which was not too complex.”
“I have now taken on a harder physics course – solid state physics (the physics of crystalline materials) – and I look forward to it. I am excited about it, but it is also very time consuming – I need about seven full weeks to write 14 lectures, which I do alongside my other commitments.”
“I felt a big sense of responsibility, because you have the possibility to change somebody’s life, and the responsibility to care for that person. In my eyes, it’s my job to improve them, or help them fulfil their potential.”
Do you feel your time ‘researching’ has decreased since you arrived in Luxembourg?
“It has – when I first started, I was still actively researching, but when my group reached 4 – 5 members, I stopped because it was not essential for me to be in the lab. But I had to get back in to it very quickly after I was an invited speaker at a big US conference and my student, who was working on the topic I was meant to speak about, broke his leg. So I returned to the lab about a year after stopping, to continue the work – luckily I had some good results!”
Is there anything you have learned about yourself in the decade you have been an FNR ATTRACT Fellow?
“I have realised that I am much more demanding of my students than I have ever been with myself in the lab. I think as a supervisor, you see things that they don’t see – to me that’s one of the main differences between a supervisor and a student. My students have become very meticulous – and it is nice to have students who do good work in the lab.”
How has your ATTRACT group evolved since you created it ten years ago?
“I started with two PhD students and it grew to four or five PhD students and one Postdoc, but I found that I had a lot of PhDs and not a lot of help supervising. We are now a bit of a mix – I have one Postdoc, three PhDs and one Bachelor student. Ideally, I would like around five or six people – I don’t want a big super group: I want to be able to be there for my students. In my old PhD group, we were around 14 – 20 people – and I got to see my supervisor for 15 minutes, once a month – I don’t want that for my students.”
In your eyes, what is your biggest achievement of your time in Luxembourg?
“I will use an analogy – when you bake a cake, you think the cake is just related to the cake mixture. But you know if you bake it too long, the cake becomes dry. This is because the cake releases its moisture to the surrounding atmosphere.
“When we make our semiconductors (a substance, usually a solid chemical element or compound, which can conduct electricity under some conditions but not others), for solar cells, we also have to ‘bake’ them. What we discovered with a series of semiconductors is that they are also in contact with their atmosphere, and that parts of the semiconductor were evaporating away, which was not appreciated before.
“Semiconductors have very delicately balanced properties and a change – even on the level of removing a few atoms – can affect these properties and change everything, so this told us that we have to take good care of the ‘baking’ atmosphere.”
“I have realised that I am much more demanding of my students than I have ever been with myself in the lab. I think as a supervisor, you see things that they don’t see – to me that’s one of the main differences between a supervisor and a student.”
Can you name a question or puzzle in your field that you want to solve?
“My dream when I entered the ‘business’ was finding a way to make a high quality semiconductor, but at low cost processing methods. Semiconductors are difficult to make and most of the techniques used by physicists are expensive, because they require a lot of energy. In physics, you often evaporate metals – it works like when you boil water in your kettle and it starts to evaporate. But it takes a lot more energy with metals and that is why it is so expensive.
“Finding a way to improve this process, which could ultimately bring down the cost of making a solar cell, has more or less been one of the fundamental drivers of the research we have done in my group.”
How does your family feel about your line of work?
“I’m the first academic in the family, so my parents are very proud and they always ask me ‘have you saved the world yet?’. My daughters are a bit young, so they cannot yet quite comprehend what a scientist is. My wife is very supportive, and sometimes helps me with some very advanced bits of maths!”
Many researchers often work long hours and the desire to have a better work life balance is a common one. You started a family after you started your ATTRACT Fellowship – have you succeeded in building a work life balance you are happy with?
“I would say so. I work probably the least hours of any researcher I know, but when I am at work, I try to be as absolutely efficient as possible. I like not working at the weekend or too late in the evenings, so I can spend this time with my wife and kids. I value my work life balance – but don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy my work and being an academic, we are super privileged in the sense that we are paid to learn.”
Considering you are a British national, has the Brexit vote has any influence on your plans for the future here in Luxembourg?
“No. If Luxembourg will have me, I will become a Luxembourgish citizen. I have settled here – I met my wife here, we bought a house, and both my children are in the Luxembourg school system. I have Luxembourgish friends and although I don’t feel completely integrated, my family and I participate in local activities.”
Published 18 January 2018
“I’m the first academic in the family, so my parents are very proud and they always ask me ‘have you saved the world yet?’ “
PHILLIP DALE’S ROAD TO ATTRACT
The ATTRACT programme is designed for researchers not yet established in Luxembourg, who demonstrate the potential to become leaders in their field of research. The scheme offers promising junior researchers the opportunity to set up their own research team within one of the country’s research institutions. The financial contribution by the FNR can be up to 1.5 MEUR for Starting Investigators (Postdoc & Junior Researcher level) or 2 MEUR for Consolidating Investigators (Established Researcher level). In the 2018/19 Call, the FNR expects to be able to fund 2 projects. Projects have a lifespan of 5 years. The next ATTRACT deadline is 15 November 2018 (pre-proposals). Find out more