Chris McNeill: into the lab

23 April

Regularly, veski takes you in conversation with our innovation fellows. We talk to them about a range of topics from where they got their start in science to what happens in their lab today.



This time, we chat to Dr Chris McNeill who was awarded a veski innovation fellowship in 2011.

Dr Chris McNeill returned from Cambridge University to join the Monash University’s Department of Materials Engineering as a Senior Lecturer. We asked Chris to take us on a tour of his lab.


What does your lab look like today?

The first of three areas is a large equipment lab which houses systems I use for fabricating solar cells. I share it with two other academics that also have large-scale equipment. Next door, there is a standard lab space work bench for basic processing. This is where more of the mundane work is done. Then there’s an ice characterisation laboratory for characterising the electronic parameters for solar cells.

Tell us about the innovative elements of the lab?

The innovation doesn't come from the individual items but from combining the lab work with the synchrotron work and operating in a place in between. Normally, it would be something people could only do in the lab.

How have labs changed since you started your research career?

Back at Newcastle University, I was the first student for my research supervisor and we didn't have all the equipment so we'd use bits and pieces of equipment lying around. I learned a lot by doing it that way. Cambridge was also interesting because you'd think it would be a pinnacle for equipment but you don't need first class equipment to do first class science. Now, coming back to Monash, I've been able to bring a lot of things I've learnt from putting labs together from principal components.

What role does technology play?

Technology is important but it’s also a danger because students tend to trust computers a bit too much and they don't learn as much. Students still need to be keyed in to know what’s happening behind the computer screens. You can regard the synchrotron as a piece of high technology which makes it a lot easier to do the experiment. The ability to control things at the nano scale allows us to characterise, analyse and probe things at a level we would not have been able to 10 years ago. It’s fantastic.

If you had a spare million dollars what would you buy?

If I had $10 million, I'd buy a spare beamline. People are also key. There’s infrastructure and there’s people. It's just as important to invest in people as it is to invest in equipment.

What do people say when they visit your lab?

People from UK were blown away by the space of our lab. It’s an impressive building and the space promotes openness and collaboration. In the UK, they have a lot of equipment crammed into a small room.

Who do you collaborate with and how?

I collaborate with people in Monash. It’s funny, but sometimes collaborating with people in local departments can be harder than working with international people. Being so close to other academics means our collaborations can be meaningful and develop. I also have a lot of international collaborations, with people from the US, Italy and China, which I developed while in Cambridge.

What's the value of collaboration and what are your tips for successful collaborations?

Even in area of synchrotron analysis I rely on collaboration with beam line scientists who are experts I that field. Meeting new people is important, which is why I still go to overseas conferences. It’s important to be proactive at marketing yourself to present at different universities. You need to identify your unique selling points and what value you bring to the group and then demonstrate what you do best. You need to be wise in how you target people to collaborate with and identify people with complementary areas. Collaboration is not something that happens by itself.

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