Andrew MacDonald, PhD in Physics

Andrew is pursuing a PhD in Physics and is supervised by Drs. Sarah Burke & Doug Bonn. He joined UBC in 2011, having received a Bachelor of Science Honours Coop in Mathematical Physics, Astrophysics Specialization at University of Waterloo.

What attracted you to study quantum matter research? 

I originally intended to go to graduate school in geophysics or astrophysics, I’m from a small town and I remember spending many nights growing up staring at the sky. I even did a specialization in astrophysics in my undergraduate degree.

That changed when I had a third year NSERC Undergraduate Student Research position studying magnets using computational models. I became really mesmerized with the beauty and complexity of magnetic systems and I still am. We have an experimental demo for lab tours where we levitate a superconductor over a series of bar magnets and despite that fact that I’ve seen it dozens of times it still fills me with wonder every time.

The other thing that I really liked about quantum matter research is that most of the work done in this field happens at really low temperature. The experiment I work on at UBC operates at -269°C, which is on the warmer end of things!

What made you decide to study this at UBC? 

UBC had the right combination of opportunities for personal and professional growth and that really appealed to me. Both my wife and I are scientists and we had narrowed down our choices for graduate school to a choice between UBC and McGill in Montreal. It was a tough decision but she had a very good opportunity to work at TRIUMF (Canada’s National Lab for Nuclear and Particle Physics) and I had a chance to help build a group from the ground up with the LAIR (UBC’s scanning probe microscopy group) so we went with that.

The proximity to the mountains and the ocean was another important factor. I was admitted to the Geophysics graduate program at UBC as well and almost wound up spending much of my graduate career on a glacier in the Yukon. In the end I couldn’t resist the allure of quantum mechanics, and decided to become a student at SBQMI.

What are some of the fundamental questions you are trying to answer in your research?

My research seeks to answer the question: “How do electrons can move through solids?” This is an important question both from a fundamental physics point of view and from a technological one; the way that our computers, phones, solar cells, and power plants work depends on our knowledge of how electrons move through solids. The comparison I like to use is that the electrons are doing a dance, and it’s my job to unravel the steps.

To do this, I use a device called a scanning tunneling microscope (STM). Unlike a regular microscope, which uses optics to focus light, a scanning tunneling microscope uses quantum tunneling to measure electrons with resolution comparable to an atomic radius. That means that we are, in a way, actually measuring the position of individual atoms and molecules. To put that in context we are measuring a length scale over a million times smaller than the width of a human hair.

Another question I’m seeking to answer is: “What are new ways we can use the STM to probe electrons?” Here at SBQMI we have a low vibration lab that allows us to take STM measurements over a much longer time scale than was possible decades ago. This has allowed us to probe the momentum and energy properties of the electron with previously unprecedented resolution. During a research exchange to IBM Almaden I worked with a team that was coupling the STM to radio-frequency radiation, allowing precise measurement of nano-scale magnetic properties. By pushing the technical limits of our instruments we’re able to measure new physics, which is very exciting.

What excites you most about your research? 

(1) The possibility that I might see atoms today. (2) Getting to make a superconductor levitate. (3) The chance of discovering something unexpected.

How could your area of research ultimately impact the lives of others? 

Here I’m reminded of the Arthur C. Clarke quote: “Trying to predict the future is a discouraging, hazardous occupation.” Nonetheless I’ll give it a try. Trying to think about the long-term impact of any research field means you have to think about your work as a small part of the work of thousands and thousands of people over decades of research. The biggest results that could have an impact on people’s lives, with no timelines or strings attached, are:

Better medical diagnostics: Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a ubiquitous non-invasive medial imaging technique that can take astounding images of soft tissue. It stems from an experimental physics technique known as nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and requires very powerful magnets. Right now the most powerful, energy-efficient magnets we can make are superconducting magnets made of niobium-titanium or niobium-tin. These work very well but they need to be cooled to liquid helium temperatures to operate properly. If we could devise or discover a superconducting magnet that needed less cooling and could be made for roughly the same cost then we could drastically cut the cost of owning and operating an MRI. As someone who has had multiple knee surgeries I can tell you that MRI can have a pretty big influence on someone’s life and livelihood.

An understanding of the high-temperature superconductors: The first low temperature superconductors were discovered in 1911 and it took until the 1950’s to have a solid theoretical understanding of how they worked. The high temperature superconductors were discovered in 1986 and we are still searching for a similarly deep understanding of the physics that makes them tick. This problem is the subject of intense research around the world and if it were solved it would affect the lives of a great many scientists. It could also have implications for building new technologies, like the MRI magnets mentioned above.

Customizable quantum materials: This is the goal that may have the largest effect on people lives. If one day in the future we were able to make materials with whatever physical properties we want, be it elasticity, light to electricity conversion, or magnetism. If we could design and manufacture quantum materials with any physical properties that we want that would have huge implications for space travel, power generation, power storage, medicine, and many more aspects of modern life.

What is one cool fact about your research or quantum matter more generally that you use to impress your friends?

On a good day I not only get to see individual atoms but I can rearrange them one-by-one to spell things.

What opportunities has being at SBQMI opened up for you?

One of the highlights of my doctoral degree was a six-month research exchange at IBM Almaden in California. It was a fantastic opportunity to work with the scientists at IBM Research and pioneer a new experimental technique. I learned a fantastic amount, made many good friends, and got the opportunity to experience science from both an industry and an international perspective. This wouldn’t have been possible without the support of SBQMI and the Quest program.

While at IBM I also had the opportunity to attend a workshop in Germany, where collaborators from SBQMI, IBM, and the Max Planck Institutes all got together to discuss the state of the art developments in the field. The opportunity to meet international collaborators face-to-face at conferences like this multiple times during my degree has been invaluable to both my research and growth as a young scientist.

When you’re not studying/in the lab, where are you most likely to be found?

Walking my Alaskan Malamute/German Shepherd cross in Pacific Spirit Park.

The research and activities of the GREx Secretariat and SBQMI are undertaken thanks in part to funding from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund.