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"The best part of my job is that I get to learn new things all the time."
I work in the epitaxy group, which develops semiconductors with very specific properties. I'm currently developing lasers for use in environmental sensing. We're making very long wavelength lasers that can detect trace gases - particularly toxic gases such as hydrogen fluoride, ammonia, hydrogen sulphide and methane.
One of our industrial clients makes gas analyzer systems and we provide lasers at the wavelength they want. For example, hydrogen fluoride is produced in aluminium smelters, so they want to use a sensor to detect this gas and prevent dangerous leaks. Hydrogen fluoride is also used in petroleum alkylation so the company provides sensors for the oil industry to ensure safety in their facilities.
Our group competes with top universities and institutes around the world. Our clients have definite goals, so our lasers must detect the specific gases they want to detect. If a laser's wavelength is not exactly correct, it won't work. This means we have to be very precise.
I liked physics and math in university. After graduating, there weren't many jobs available so I completed a Master's Degree at Queen's University. Afterwards, my wife got into a creative writing program at the University of British Columbia and I entered the PhD program at Simon Fraser University. While I was there, an NRC director gave a presentation on semiconductors. He made NRC sound like a great place to work, so I applied for a job but there weren't any openings at the time.
My first job was in Silicon Valley as an application engineer for a technology start-up. It was interesting work, but I could tell that I would prefer research. When I eventually received an email from NRC offering me a position, I was happy to accept. That was in 1999.
Every day is different. This morning, my director and I discussed a presentation for a cross-NRC project that involves the development of sensors for commercial buildings. We're helping to make an intelligent sensor system that can detect trace gases, such as formaldehyde, which is a hazardous indoor air contaminant. If the formaldehyde level exceeds the allowed limit, the system will adjust the building's ventilation to reduce the gas concentration to safe levels.
The most interesting equipment I use is a molecular beam epitaxy system, which allows us to "grow" crystalline layered structures with atomic layer precision. This machine requires an intense vacuum - the pressure inside its stainless steel chamber is about 13 orders of magnitude lower than atmospheric pressure. The system is very sensitive and requires great care. If a power or a vacuum failure occurs on a weeknight or weekend, I get an automatic phone call so I can come immediately to address the problem.
My hobbies include sports like soccer, hockey and running. I also coach my son's hockey team and I play guitar.
Vacations: We often go to Florida for March Break to escape the cold Ottawa winters. My wife's family has a cottage near Ottawa so we usually go there in the summer.
Books: I often read novels that my wife recommends because of her background in literature. Recently, I've been reading Naomi Klein's "The Shock Doctrine" as well as Malcolm Gladwell and Dan Brown books.
Music: I play rock on the electric guitar, but I also play acoustic and listen to all kinds of music. My favourite artists include The Tragically Hip, Van Halen and Green Day.
Television: I haven't turned on the TV in ages. But when the Ottawa Senators are doing well, I watch the Senators. I like Dragon's Den and I used to watch Da Vinci's Inquest.
Movies: Nowadays because I have a young son, I go to all the children's movies. I also like action movies like the Jason Bourne series.
If I was awarded $1 million in research funding, I would like to work on something called a vertical cavity surface emitting laser, which is challenging to fabricate. If these lasers could be produced with emission in the mid-infrared wavelength range, they could provide a low-cost solution to address many gas sensing applications.
If I won a $1 million lottery, I would buy a bigger house with a pool and I would build a home studio for my guitars, amplifiers, keyboard and drums.