Ben MacLeod, PhD in Chemistry

Ben MacLeod is currently doing a PhD in chemistry with Professor Curtis Berlinguette. He started at UBC as an undergraduate in 2007 and did a BASc. and MASc. in engineering physics. He worked extensively with SBQMI Professor Doug Bonn’s group as an undergraduate before joining his and Professor Sarah Burke’s Laboratory for Atomic Imaging Research (LAIR) group as a MASc. student.

What attracted you to study quantum matter research? 

The other day a few of my friends were discussing how lightning creates thunder. No one could remember the explanation but I was able to come up with an intuitive guess: the lightning bolt rapidly heats the air; air expands when it is heated; expanding gasses cause pressure differences and we perceive pressure differences as sound. I loved engineering physics because it helped me develop intuition for why things like thunder occur. I think this intuition is my most valuable skill because once you understand how things work, you can come up with new ideas and new ways of doing things. For example, based on understanding the mechanism that causes thunder, people have built Tesla coils that play music,​ essentially by turning miniature lightning bolts on and off at audible frequencies.

A big part of building useful devices like solar panels is understanding the properties of materials. One of my goals for my PhD is to develop a useful intuition for these properties that I can apply to helping build new and improved energy technologies. I hope to start building this intuition by studying the quantum mechanical entities like electrons, atoms, photons and quantized vibrations that play a central role in determining material properties.

What made you decide to study this at UBC? 

After finishing my MASc. I was looking at applying to several different PhD programs and also looking at jobs in industry. My dream was to find a PhD program that would combine the two. I had fantastic experiences as an undergrad and master’s student at UBC and my family is in Vancouver so when Professor Berlinguette offered me a position as a PhD student on an industrially sponsored research project, I was thrilled.

What excites you most about your research? 

I’m always excited to learn new and better ways of doing things so working with an industrial partner has been incredible. Working with world-­class industrial scientists and project managers, I’ve had the opportunity to learn sophisticated industrial methodologies for tasks like project planning, experimental design and data analysis automation. At the same time, the level of conciseness and clarity that Prof. Berlinguette and our industrial partner expect in our professional communications has really pushed me to elevate my skills in that area. These kinds of learning opportunities are exactly why I pursued an industrially sponsored PhD and I am eager to make the most of them.

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

One thing that I like to show people is how quiet it gets inside the LAIR low­-vibration microscopy labs when you close the acoustic isolation doors. The microscopes in those labs are often making images of single atoms and can be disturbed by even inaudible sounds, so the labs have been built to be VERY quiet. If you go in there with another person and they aren’t breathing too loudly, you can hear the sound their eyelashes make when they blink!

Is there anything you have learned or experienced that you hadn’t expected to when you started at SBQMI?

Learning how to start a technology company!

In parallel with my academic studies I have been studying entrepreneurship by taking a number of the excellent workshops offered by the MITACS step program in partnership with UBC Graduate Pathways to Success. I started taking these workshops with the idea that one day I would like to start a company; as it turned out, that day came a lot sooner than I was expecting.

When I was a master’s student I worked with Dr. James Day, whose duties included managing the AMPEL helium recovery system. This system recovers the expensive helium gas used (in liquid form) to cool experiments to extremely low temperatures and re-­liquifies it for reuse.

While troubleshooting contamination issues that were preventing the recovery system from running at maximum efficiency, James found that the commercially available helium purity sensors that would help pinpoint the issue were expensive and inconvenient to use. This unmet need inspired me and three other students (Russell Engebretson, Cyrus Larsen and Sean Hayes) to begin developing an economical and easy-­to­-use helium purity monitoring system.

The project really started moving at the beginning of the summer and currently Russell, Sean and a summer student named Dylan are working on it full time and making great progress, which is very exciting. We are hoping to bring a first product to market by mid­2017 and are benefiting greatly from ongoing support and guidance from Dr. Day, SBQMI Operations manager Pinder Dosanjh, SBQMI director of business development Karl Jessen and the director of the UBC Engineering Physics program, Professor Andre Marziali.

What’s the best thing about being at SBQMI?

My favourite thing about being a part of the UBC SBQMI/chemistry/physics community is the huge number of brilliant scientists and technologists who are willing to share their time and expertise. For almost any engineering, chemistry or physics question I can think of, a short walk will bring me to expert on the topic who, more often than not, will take time out of their day to point me in the right direction.

What opportunities has being at SBQMI opened up for you? 

I’ve been extremely fortunate to work with SBQMI professors throughout my undergraduate and graduate studies at UBC.

As an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to work for Professor Doug Bonn’s group almost every summer. During this time, I got to work alongside one of Doug’s talented research associates, Dr. Yan Pennec, helping design a state-­of-­the-­art ultra­low­temperature scanning tunneling microscope as well as a low­-vibration facility for housing it. That facility is now the Laboratory for Atomic Imaging Research (or LAIR as we call it, since it is deep in the basement of the AMPEL building). After presenting an introduction to this exciting project at the 2012 UBC multidisciplinary undergraduate conference, I was lucky to be chosen to help represent UBC at that year’s U21 undergraduate conference at Waseda university in Tokyo.

As a master’s student, I continued working on the same project and helped build and commissioning the microscope and low vibration lab. A large part of my MASc. research was on characterizing the low-­level vibrations remaining in the low­-vibration laboratory. Some of the things we learned from the LAIR helped inform the design of the low­-vibration labs in the new SBQMI building, which was a fun project to be involved with.

Thanks to funding from the SBQMI’s QuEST program, I was able to focus heavily on doing original research during my MASc. My work led to a paper called ​“Acoustic buffeting by infrasound in a low vibration facility” which Doug, Sarah Burke, Jenny Hoffman and I wrote. This paper was recently accepted by Review of Scientific Instruments and it will be my first publication so I am really excited about it! The key result was that the acoustic resonances of a hard­-walled room containing a vibration isolated platform can significantly disturb the platform if the room and platform are of similar size.

Doug and now Curtis’s support in allowing me to pursue interesting side projects helped lead me to my helium purity technology startup and also to doing consulting work for a local technology company. During my MASc. I was also lucky to have a chance to help teach the ENPH 253 undergraduate robotics competition course with Jon Nakane, Bernhard Zender and Andre Marziali. ENPH 253 is an amazing course where 2n​d​ year engineering physics students work night and day in a boiling hot teaching lab for all summer to build autonomous robots that can perform a challenging competitive task. ​This year’s competition​ was extra exciting!

I joined Professor Curtis Berlinguette’s group as a PhD student about a year ago to work on an industrially sponsored project. The people involved with this project are typically geniuses and often pioneers within their disciplines and in the last year I’ve had the privilege of working alongside and learning from a huge number of them, both at UBC and elsewhere. The opportunity to work with people of this caliber and to soak up a little bit of their wisdom is exactly why I joined the project.

I’ve also found adapting to the culture of the Berlinguette group to be an enormously positive learning experience. Curtis’ emphasis on exceptionally clear scientific communications, diligent preparation and professionalism has taught me skills which have already begun to benefit my career and which I will rely on for the rest of my life. I now appreciate the art­form of taking a detailed, busy slide that took hours to build and spending hours more distilling it into a single, crisp image and a three or four word caption!

Finally, I recently learned that I will be receiving financial support for my PhD studies through the SBQMI’s QuEST program, which is a huge honor and will allow me to focus on doing great research. So overall, it has been a pretty incredible first year as a student working with Professor Berlinguette’s group, our industrial project sponsor and the SBQMI.

What would you like to do when you finish your studies here?

I want to work on practical clean energy technologies that displace fossil fuels. Ideally, I think I would like to work somewhere where these technologies are being deployed on an industrial scale but I think I would be happy anywhere I can be useful and continue learning new things.

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

Somewhere in British Columbia. I like watching the sun set over English Bay with my girlfriend Belle and our two cats. I enjoy relaxing walks and bike rides through pacific spirit park and less relaxing trips to the gym with Belle (who is quite the drill sergeant). I’ve recently started learning how to kiteboard with my cousin Danielle who lives in Squamish. My grandparents lived on Gabriola Island when I was a kid and Belle’s family has connections to Hornby and Galiano, so we like to spend time on the Gulf Islands whenever we get a chance.

Anything else you would like to share about your work or your experience at SBQMI?

I’ve been really fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from a huge number of exceptional individuals in the time I’ve spent at UBC and the QMI and just want to say thank you:

  • To Doug, Yan, Sarah, Jenny, Rob, James, Pinder, the whole LAIR group and everyone else in AMPEL and UBC physics for making my time there so awesome.
  • To Curtis, Phil, Brian, the entire Berlinguette group and our collaborators, for welcoming me into the group and an exciting new project and for everything they have taught me over the last year.
  • To all the chemistry department members who have welcomed me warmly to a new department and to the awesome teams in the PHAS, CHEM and CHBE shops and Jon and Bernhard in the engineering physics project lab for their generous help and advice in building things! 

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