Cambridge Science Centre


Rachel Oliver, PhD


I don't know when I first got interested in science - I only know that I've always been interested in how stuff works and why the world around me is the way it is. I can remember asking my Mum, when I was quite small, why water was see through but milk wasn't! I also recall wanting to know why metals felt cold to the touch, whereas other things, like wood, felt warm. This curiosity about simple, straightforward things in the world around me quite naturally led me to Materials Science, which I sometimes describe as the science of everyday stuff. Everything we make has to be made from something, and Materials Science is all about understanding and improving the materials we use to make things. I have always found myself more interested in things which I can see or touch, than in more esoteric (although incredibly important questions) about the fundamental nature of the universe, such as whether the Higg's boson exists.

As a sixth-former, I went on an course at Birmingham University to learn a bit more about Materials Science and that helped to convince me that this unusual subject was just right for me. I studied for my MEng degree at Oxford University, and eventually stayed at Oxford for a PhD. I originally intended to move elsewhere, but was offered an exciting PhD project at Oxford, which allowed me to spend several months in the USA working in an industrial lab. I expected to go into industry after completing my PhD, but concluded that in my field (light emitting materials) the exciting questions (questions that often begin with "Why...?") were being asked in academia, whilst in industry a trial and error approach to producing efficient devices was more popular, with less focus on why these devices work well. In 2003, I moved to Cambridge, where there was a thriving research group, with state-of-the-art equipment working in my field, and have been here ever since. I found that I enjoyed the mixed challenges of academia, combining teaching and research, although these days (with a two-year old son), I find it challenging to manage the many conflicting demands on my time. Nonetheless, I still find it fascinating to ask "Why...?" questions about new materials, and sometimes even to find some answers!