Coffee with Postdocs - Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson

Matt’s journey to ANU

Born and raised in the small town of Springsure in Central Queensland, 300km west of Rockhampton and 800km
away from Brisbane, Matt received his Ph.D. in experimental plasma physics from Australian National University 2016. Matt went to a high school in a neighboring town, Emerald, commuting 60 km each way, before going on to undergraduate studies at Central Queensland University. Matt always had a genuine interest in science and, like many children, had a passion for dinosaurs and planets. However, Matt’s father wanted him to do medicine, which pushed Matt toward the engineering side and sparked his interest in physics.

Creating radiation shielding materials for fusion reactors

Matt is currently developing radiation-resistant materials aimed to protect other components within the fusion reactor, like ITER, from higher heat flux and low-energy helium ions originating from plasma.

Reactor components are expected to face high temperatures exceeding 700°C and side-products of the fusion reaction, such as helium flux and high-velocity neutrons. Matt tries to understand the negative impact that plasma
has on the reactor wall and the effect on thermo-mechanical properties, hardness and toughness of the future  radiation resistant materials. Matt is also working on exploiting hydrogen plasma for green steel manufacturing and
issues related to scaling up this industrial process.

If Matt had a chance to change something in his scientific career

Earlier in his Postdoctoral work, Matt was trying to solve problems around surface scattering effects that manifested in Small Angle X-ray data, which was time-consuming and did not lead to any positive outcomes. The lesson that Matt learned from this experience is: “Spend time on things that work”

He says: “Supervisor is always right” Matt admits that initially, he can be reluctant to the ideas his supervisor may suggest but then changes his mind later on.

His dream research question

Matt is fascinated to get more insight into how quantum gravity looks like and how all four
fundamental sources are incorporated into quantum theory.

5 Things you should know about Matt

  1. He has two children (7 and 4 years old)
  2. Family is important. It is hard to be both an academic and a parent. Academic work is demanding and creates tension beetween the notion of an ideal scholar and a good parent. However, for Matt, family always comes first.
  3. His favourite book in high school was Lord of the Rings
  4. Matt would like to write a novel
  5. Loved painting little models when he was in high school

His next steps

Matt is open to opportunities. According to Matt, flexibility is one of the key skills in academia in order to learn how to recognize and take opportunities. Recently, Matt was appointed as a Sub Dean within the College of Science (part-time) and currently shares his administrative responsibilities with the research load. He is also looking for funding in nuclear materials science and willing to restart international collaborations, particularly with the University of York
(Manchester, UK) and the University Of California in San Diego (USA)

Matt’s role model in science

Matt never had a role model in science, as none of them resonated with him at a personal level. Matt’s desire for
innovations and breakthroughs in physics is driven more by a personal interest in the field.

One scientist Matt would like to meet

Matt would love to meet Russel Matt with his wife and two children Doerner, one of Matt’s former  collaborators from the University of California San Diego, yet one of the loveliest men he has ever met. Collaboration with Russell was a pleasant and easy journey for Matt. Some of the qualities that Matt appreciated in Russel were consideration and genuine interest in other people.

The most precious advice from Matt’s supervisor

Matt learned from his supervisor that being open to other opportunities outside the university is important. It is very easy to feel trapped by the academic environment. Matt says: “Once you realize that there are many opportunities outside university walls, you don’t feel pressured. Pushing for the matrix because you have to is not worthwhile”.
Interviewed by Maryna Bilokur and Michaela Froehlich.

Advice to new postdocs coming to ANU

  1. Try to stand out
  2. Share the load and work with collaborators
  3. Build networks to gain international recognition
  4. Chnage your mindset if you are starting your first postdoc. It is especially critical when you combine academic and family responsibilities
  5. Be career-flexible. Learn to recognize the option that these is an opportunity to move away from academia
  6. If moving outside academia, get service experience. Service space is valuable in the Canberra context. Having this experience is important for professional development.
  7. Find a backup plan. The education skill set is valued largely by school teachers. If needed, get qualificatios to do it.

Interviewed and written by the EMCR representatives Dr Maryna Bilokur and Dr Michaela Froehlich.

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