It was during a summer placement at the Institut Laue-Langevin in Grenoble, France, whilst still an undergraduate at Trinity College Cambridge, that Chris Frost caught the addiction for neutron scattering. A few years later, with a bachelor's degree and PhD in superconductivity under his belt, he began working at ISIS as a PostDoc and never looked back.
Having worked for ISIS for nearly twenty years, Chris believes STFC has great opportunities to expand your career and that if you want to work for a world-leading neutron source then "ISIS is clearly the place to be". During his time here, Chris has progressed from PostDoc, to Instrument Scientist on MAPS, to Group Leader with ISIS Industry Liaison Manager as one of his responsibilities.
"The modern view is that you should change your job or employer quite frequently in your career and I think in some cases that's true, but the variety of what you can do at somewhere like RAL means that you can steer your career in completely different ways every few years."
Currently, Chris is working on the ChipIr instrument; one of the first dedicated facilities outside of the US to look at how silicon microchips respond to cosmic ray neutron radiation. The instrument is therefore of significant strategic importance for the European electronics industry.
The interaction of cosmic rays with the earth's atmosphere generates showers of particles including high energy neutrons. Cosmic neutron radiation can disrupt the normal operation of electronic systems, particularly in aircraft and road vehicles with problems ranging from wiping a device's memory to damaging the electronics. At normal aircraft flying altitudes of 30,000 to 35,000 feet, these neutron showers are intense enough to disrupt aircraft electronics through 'single event effects' (SEE) and good design and testing of the electronics is necessary to compensate for this disruption.
Using Chipir, users perform electronics testing at highly accelerated rate with a measurement of just one hour being equivalent to exposing microchips to high-energy neutrons for hundreds to thousands of years in the real environment. Such accelerated atmospheric neutron testing is designed to mimic SEE, and allow industry to develop strategies, designs and methods to mitigate their effects.
"It is really great to see the users of ChipIr working on this important area of research. We designed ChipIr so that people working on some of the most advanced electronics can understand how cosmic ray neutrons are affecting their systems and ensure that those systems do the job they are supposed to do in a resilient and reliable way, before they hit the market. At the end of the day the best outcome is that no-one even notices the impact of cosmic rays, because this knowledge was built in at the design stage!"
Chris feels the ChipIr project will be one of his proudest achievements at ISIS to date: "Bringing the ChipIr instrument online was very exciting; I spent a number of years working with industry conceiving the idea and a number of years with engineers building the instrument and now to see it turn into something that is of key strategic importance to the electronics industry in the UK and Europe is for me going to be a great achievement."
Through the development of a different kind of instrument to others at ISIS, many new users have been brought into the facility doing experiments that are new to the UK. There have also been applications that Chris wasn't expecting: "we are doing things we didn't know we would be able to do".
Through his work developing ChipIr, Chris is ideally placed to be the Industry Liaison Manager for ISIS. Through this role, he works to help break the barriers and perceptions about the application of neutron scattering between both industry, academia and facilities, to try and increase the number of industrial collaborations with ISIS users and to encourage more direct industrial work with ISIS through the ISIS Collaborative Research and Development scheme (ICRD).
"I think industry can often picture places like ISIS as a bit impenetrable – there's lots going on here and loads of people. We do lots of exciting science at ISIS, but which of those projects or experiments actually has a direct application to industry and who should you talk to is sometimes a very difficult question for industry."
After a few years of running the scheme; "we are finding that the commercial and industrial users are beginning to realise just how useful neutrons can be over a whole variety of sectors, such as how materials behave under stress and strain, which has a huge benefit to a variety of industries ranging from aerospace and automotive to petrochemical infrastructure nuclear power engineering."
Chris believes the barriers can be broken if you start talking to each other and working out an access mechanism that works very much for industry. "I think the success of the ICRD scheme is that it aims to deliver to industry the access mechanism that is very suitable to them. By meeting and working closely with industry we have come up with a system that removes any perceived barriers to them using ISIS. The fact that we find it very easy to fill our allocation each year for the scheme shows that it's working!"
But what drives Chris' motivation?
"The unexpected the new and the surprise days are great days. The opportunity to do really quite different things is clearly something that many jobs don't have, but a job in science and at a facility like ISIS, allows you to do that constantly throughout your career. So being able to decide one day that electronics and cosmic rays are interesting and then being able to take that through even over a number of years and being able to build an instrument for the UK and talk to senior politicians, school children and news media about it, makes it a different kind of job and really satisfying."
60 second sketch
Every member of staff that is profiled is asked to answer ten simple questions that we think will help you to get to know them better.
1. What did you want to be when you were six years old? An Astronaut – I loved rockets and science
2. Who's your favourite scientist? Richard Feynmann for his sense of fun and incredible insight and my late supervisor Gordon Squires who had a lot of what Richard Feynmann was which was an inquisitive mind, a wonderful nature and the ability to explain almost any bit of physics to you.
3. Science or art? Art because I do science anyway!
4. Beer or wine? Depends on what I'm eating but largely proper local beer.
5. Are you a suit or a scientist? I'm a scientist who knows how to wear a suit.
6. If you had a luxury item to take to a desert island ('desert island discs' style) what would it be? A large English church organ.
7. Meccano or play dough? Meccano
8. Staycation or vacation? Vacation - because of the food!
9. Are you a planner or are you spontaneous? I plan to be spontaneous – I think I'm more of a planner, I think you have to be but you have to throw in a bit of spontaneity – plans never survive first contact with the enemy!
10. What is a healthy work life balance and what percentage of your time do you think that you spend at work? 60:40. But then again I think science is vocational. I'm still thinking about cosmic rays over dinner but if you love your job and you love science that's inevitable. I should imagine a musician has got a tune going through their head on the bus!