Chris McNeill: science infrastructure

6 November

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 visited him at the newly opened New Horizons building and asked about the current state of science infrastructure in Victoria.


How would you rate science infrastructure in Victoria?

In general, it's very good. We have a lot of top-rate facilities which are flagship facilities for the country.  You wouldn't find better. The Australian Synchrotron is a prime example and used for a lot of my research. Melbourne also has the Melbourne Centre for Nanofabrication and both are located close to each other. It really is great to have Australia's main synchrotron here in Victoria.

Did the synchrotron help 'seal the deal' about returning to Victoria?

It was certainly appealing having the synchrotron next door and it’s one of the aspects that sold Monash to me. The Melbourne Centre for Nanofabrication has allowed me to get my research going from day one without having to wait to get my own lab set up. Having those two pieces of infrastructure in place before I came definitely helped to seal the deal.

Tell us about the synchrotron. How do you use it and how does it support your research?

The synchrotron is basically a big, round vacuum chamber around which electronics travel at close to the speed of light. It’s a bit like a toy train track, but on a larger scale. When electrons travelling close to the speed of light are bent by magnetic fields they give off X-rays. We get the X-rays and do experiments with them. The main storage ring produces the X-rays and then you need another stage to make use of the X-rays. They're the beamlines. There are other synchrotrons around the world but being able to do my experiments within world-class facility that’s just across the road makes it easy to do first-rate science. I don't have any qualms because I wouldn't be able to get better results in other parts of the world. My research is focused on using this world-class technology for experiments.

What do you show off to colleagues visiting from overseas? What do you highlight to them?

We had some people from Warwick University come to visit as part of a Monash/Warwick joint workshop on solar energy. We started at the Monash Centre for Electron microscopy and then showed them the synchrotron, the Melbourne Centre for Nanofabrication, and also CSIRO’s laboratories. I also highlighted the fact that we’re in the New Horizons building which houses purpose-built brand new lab space as well as offices.

You seem pretty settled into your new space, what was it like moving in?

Sometimes, coming to a new university you have to battle with other researchers for space. Not having the hassle of fighting for lab space was great. All my equipment is up and running and we have offices and labs all on the same level. Previously in other places I'd have to go from different buildings to undertake my daily research. It’s great now having space that's been designed around our equipment. Having new labs is always really nice. It’s also a very collaborative environment.

It makes everything a lot easier and removes all the hassle and barriers to doing the research.

How does it compare to overseas?

People often ask what it’s like coming back from the UK. If anything, I've got on-par or better facilities here. I haven't suffered at all coming back to Australia. If anything, I'd say it’s improved because in the UK, the synchrotron was in Oxfordshire, which meant I had to travel. With support from veski and the ARC I've been able to kit out the labs with equipment that is as good if not better than I had for my research in Cambridge.  If I compare where I am now to where I've been, the lab space there was very good but the equipment I'd use would be in three different buildings. Here, I have newer labs, better equipment laboratories and a more generous amount of lab space.

What are three interesting things about Victoria’s science infrastructure?

First, I think it's interesting that you have the Melbourne Centre for Nanofabrication where you can create things down to nanosize next door to a car repairer. And, next to that, you have a facility accelerating electrons very close to speed of light. Among the light industry of Clayton you also have all this incredible science.

Second, it’s exciting that we can accelerate electrons to close to the speed of light to give us X-rays with which we can do health research or drug development.  Third, Clayton may look like an unremarkable area to the naked eye but within these facilities there is really interesting stuff from a science perspective.

What other Victorian science infrastructure do you use?

We’ve done a great job developing this area at the Monash precinct. Domestically, in terms of what's available at Monash, it's great. Ordinarily, you might have to go overseas to use a synchrotron but now we've got it all here.


Next time, we will be in conversation with Dr Mark Shackleton about the Victorian science infrastructure he uses in his research.

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