Andrew Thomas

Favourite Thing: My favourite thing to do in science is being in the lab fiddling with the instruments and fine tuning everything to get it just right. It’s especially exciting when we’re at one of the big international synchrotron facilities because there are scientists from all over the world there doing all kinds of science. I also enjoy talking about what we’re doing and enthusing other people about my work.



Highfields School, Matlock until1984 Manchester Uni 1986-1989, UMIST 1989-1990, University of Liverpool 1990-1994


BSc(Hons) Chemistry, MSc Instrumentation and Analytical Science, PhD

Work History:

UMIST 1994-2004 University of Manchester 2004-now

Current Job:

Research Fellow


The University of Manchester

Me and my work

I’m a surface spectroscopist – which means I study surfaces of materials using radiation with the aim of making better medical implants, and cheap fuel from the sun!

I got a degree in Chemistry from Manchester University longer ago than I want to remember then after an MSc at UMIST did my PhD at Liverpool University studying Surface Science and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. When I’m not working I play guitar and played in a band when I was a student. During my PhD my bandmates gave me a choice the band or PhD – I chose my PhD. Have you heard of a band called Rich in Spirit? – No? so I made the right choice. I support Man City and go as often as I can with my two sons

My research involves the study of surfaces at an atomic scale. People tend not to think about surfaces but they are everywhere and in just about every application of a solid material it’s the surface – or an interface between two surfaces – where all the exciting stuff goes on. Think about a hip implant, the inside of the material gives it strength but if the surface gives off harmful chemicals or particles, or prevents healing it’s never going to work. I tend to work at the interface too. That is the interface between Chemistry, Physics and Biomedicine. With dentists we are trying to work out what makes one dental implant better than another – they are both made from titanium so why don’t they heal the same way.  With Pharmacists we have been attaching special molecules to the surfaces of tiny particles that can be injected into a patient.  The idea is that these particles stick to cancer cells and show up clearly in an X-ray. We’re also doing a lot of work in trying to capture the sun’s energy to create fuels or electricity. Again by using the right molecules we are trying to copy the way nature uses light in photosynthesis to make sugar, but instead we want to make hydrogen or other fuels. Here’s a video my PhD student made on night shift at the synchrotron last night (28June2012) Brian Cox watch out!

I work in two labs in my building in the Photon Science Institute.  One is a photoelectron spectroscopy lab where we have machines that produce X-rays, the X-rays hit our samples and electrons are kicked out of the surface. This is called the photoelectric effect and it’s what Einstein won a Nobel prize for – NOT relativity! By measuring the energy of the electrons we can tell what elements are on the surface and lots of things about these elements.

All of these experiments are carried out in ultra-high vacuum (at a pressure 0.00000000000001 times that of atmospheric pressure – lower than in space). Only the sample is inside the vacuum – we wouldn’t survive very long in there! A lot of the time we are trying to find leaks on the kit and you can imagine what happens if something goes wrong – it takes up to 3 days to get from that low pressure back to atmosphere and back to low pressure again.
We also use ultrafast lasers in the other lab. each pulse is 40 femtoseconds long- that is zero point, fourteen zeroes, 4 (0.00000000000004) seconds! Here we can work either in ultra high vacuum or in normal atmospheres.

My Typical Day

Most of the time I’m in the lab working with PhD students, showing them how to run and repair the equipment.

The only thing regular about my days is the train journey to and from Manchester and the walk from the station to my office so it’s hard to pick a typical day.

Usually I’ll try to grab a coffee when I get into my office though there may already be a PhD student waiting for me wanting to discuss their results from the day before. When I travel to synchrotrons we can change the energy of the X-rays which gives us even more information but the day becomes less typical as I usually volunteer to work the night shift (I think it’s a hangover from my band days!). When everything is working well in the lab I’ll work on analysing our results – making them look pretty and clear by putting them onto graphs or making pictures to help explain what’s happening and writing the results and what we found into papers which (hopefully) get published in scientific journals. I’m also responsible for advising everyone in the Photon Science Institute to work safely with chemicals so this takes up some time. Usually at lunchtime I can find five minutes to check my Facebook status and maybe read some news on the bbc website. At home I’ll sit and chat with my kids, maybe play a bit of Call of Duty with them and get owned by them as I’m pretty rubbish! I also like cycling/mountain biking with the kids.

What I'd do with the money

Buy a camcorder to get more videos up on our YouTube page and advertise these more widely to schools.

Last year we were invited to take part in the Royal Society Summer Exhibition and made a series of short videos to go along with our stand

These have been quite successful and we’d now like to expand these.  However these videos were made with a friends camcorder and a student’s digital camera so we’d like to improve on these. Plus, when we go abroad to work at synchrotrons it would be nice to have our own camera to take along and show people what it is we actually do. I’d also use some of the money to get some animations made to help make it even clearer how our science works.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Tall, musical,quiet

Who is your favourite singer or band?

Pink Floyd

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Played in a band

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

To have an unlimited supply of money to fund my research, to have an unlimited supply of money to fund my family, to headline Glastonbury

What did you want to be after you left school?

A Dentist

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

Occasionally :p

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

Given a talk at a huge conference in the USA

Tell us a joke.

Did you hear about the baker who got an electric shock? He stood on a bun and a currant shot up his leg!

Other stuff

Work photos:


A beam line, which delivers extreme ultra violet and “soft” X-rays into our experimental chamber. This one is at Elettra in Trieste, Italy


A PhD student on the end station at Elettra adjusting the sample position. This photo has turned sideways for some reason!


Me, topping up liquid nitrogen on the end station at MaxLab in Sweden.


A single crystal of titanium dioxide mounted on a sample plate. The crystal is 1 cm x 1 cm. When the crystals are new they are transparent but this one looks blue because we have heated it to 700 °C in a vacuum chamber which means there is a bit less oxygen than there should be in the crystal. This leaves electrons “stuck” in the crystal, which gives us the blue colour.

The experiments we are doing here allow us to measure the way a molecule sticks to a surface and how stable it is. Here we were looking at how dopamine, a chemical found in our brains, sticks to titanium dioxide and how stable it is. Our colleagues in Pharmacy are trying to develop a titanium dioxide nanoparticle which is invisible to the immune system but clusters at the site of a tumour. The dopamine sticks the “cloaking” molecule to the titanium dioxide. We wanted to make sure it was strong enough not to break down over time because then it might not work in the body.