EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Condensed Matter Physics: Renewal of the CM-DTC

Lead Research Organisation: University of St Andrews
Department Name: Physics and Astronomy


The Scottish Doctoral Training Centre in Condensed Matter Physics, known as the CM-DTC, is an EPSRC-funded Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) addressing the broad field of Condensed Matter Physics (CMP).

CMP is a core discipline that underpins many other areas of science, and is one of the Priority Areas for this CDT call. Renewal funding for the CM-DTC will allow five more annual cohorts of PhD students to be recruited, trained and released onto the market. They will be highly educated professionals with a knowledge of the field, in depth and in breadth, that will equip them for future leadership in a variety of academic and industrial careers.

Condensed Matter Physics research impacts on many other fields of science including engineering, biophysics, photonics, chemistry, and materials science. It is a significant engine for innovation and drives new technologies. Recent examples include the use of liquid crystals for displays including flat-screen and 3D television, and the use of solid-state or polymeric LEDs for power-saving high-illumination lighting systems. Future examples may involve harnessing the potential of graphene (the world's thinnest and strongest sheet-like material), or the creation of exotic low-temperature materials whose properties may enable the design of radically new types of (quantum) computer with which to solve some of the hardest problems of mathematics. The UK's continued ability to deliver transformative technologies of this character requires highly trained CMP researchers such as those the Centre will produce.

The proposed training approach is built on a strong framework of taught lecture courses, with core components and a wide choice of electives. This spans the first two years so that PhD research begins alongside the coursework from the outset. It is complemented by hands-on training in areas such as computer-intensive physics and instrument building (including workshop skills and 3D printing). Some lecture courses are delivered in residential schools but most are videoconferenced live, using the well-established infrastructure of SUPA (the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance). Students meet face to face frequently, often for more than one day, at cohort-building events that emphasise teamwork in science, outreach, transferable skills and careers training.

National demand for our graduates is demonstrated by the large number of companies and organisations who have chosen to be formally affiliated with our CDT as Industrial Associates. The range of sectors spanned by these Associates is notable. Some, such as e2v and Oxford Instruments, are scientific consultancies and manufacturers of scientific equipment, whom one would expect to be among our core stakeholders. Less obviously, the list also represents scientific publishers, software houses, companies small and large from the energy sector, large multinationals such as Solvay-Rhodia and Siemens, and finance and patent law firms. This demonstrates a key attraction of our graduates: their high levels of core skills, and a hands-on approach to problem solving. These impart a discipline-hopping ability which more focussed training for specific sectors can complement, but not replace. This breadth is prized by employers in a fast-changing environment where years of vocational training can sometimes be undermined very rapidly by unexpected innovation in an apparently unrelated sector.

As the UK builds its technological future by funding new CDTs across a range of priority areas, it is vital to include some that focus on core discipline skills, specifically Condensed Matter Physics, rather than the interdisciplinary or semi-vocational training that features in many other CDTs. As well as complementing those important activities today, our highly trained PhD graduates will be equipped to lay the foundations for the research fields (and perhaps some of the industrial sectors) of tomorrow.

Planned Impact

As stated in the 2005 International Review of Physics and Astronomy (and echoed in the 2008 RCUK Wakeham Review of UK Physics), "The last century has witnessed an enormous return on basic physics research investments - much of the increase in wealth, economic globalisation, living standards and the quality of life ... has been based on technological progress, which in turn has relied heavily on innovative research in physics and astronomy."

Condensed Matter Physics research feeds a continuous stream of innovations into technology. To see this one needs to look no further than a modern smartphone. The glass film covering the screen, the touch-screen layer beneath that, the liquid crystals and LEDs forming the display, the multi-megapixel camera sensor, the multi-gigabyte storage, the swift microchips, and not least the lithium-ion battery all represent tangible impact from advances (many quite recent) in condensed matter physics.

Research impact:
The research performed by students at the Centre will cover a range of exciting, new and rapidly developing areas in CMP, which could underpin tomorrow's technologies. For example, the discovery of design principles for new soft materials (liquid crystals, emulsions and soft composites) will benefit several sectors through shortened product lead times, lower cost, and reduced environmental damage. Among emerging technologies such as energy storage, our CMP research could allow completely new products to be created. Entirely new industrial sectors might one day stem from an ability to exploit exotic CM states to perform topologically protected quantum computation. Most of the planned research is of a fundamental, core-discipline character. By improving basic understanding and increasing knowledge, this will impact upon engineering and industrial disciplines.
Fulfilling student potential:
A primary impact of the Centre will come from the enhanced quality of the PhD graduates we produce. We will supply the UK with outstanding scientists, thoroughly trained in CMP and broader skills. They will be well equipped for leadership roles across many fields, and able to rapidly assimilate complex ideas beyond their immediate expertise. Such attributes are crucial in a modern economy where technological and intellectual paradigm shifts can occur almost overnight. Horizon scanning for such shifts is essential to forward-looking companies and to the public sector.
Informing career choices:
Our training programme will directly benefit the UK economy by ensuring that our students have a candid insight into different career opportunities, enabling them to make informed career choices aligned with their individual talents and aspirations. The diverse sectors that these students may enter are detailed in the 'Beneficiaries' section above.
Widening horizons:
Our international engagement programmes will enhance the UK's reputation as a provider of high-quality training. The Centre's students, and their research, will be enhanced by collaborations with top international groups, through a network of international partners. This will create future research leaders with international vision and exposure. One measure of such long-term reputational impact on UK science will be in the demand for places at our Centre from the brightest international students: we aspire to be seen as a peer of the very best US Universities. Another will be through the visibility of the Centre's students and alumni as established scientists on the international stage.
Societal impacts:
Our student-led outreach programme will motivate future generations of schoolchildren to develop an abiding fascination for science. It will deliver high-quality demonstrations of how condensed matter physics is both fun and important to pupils, parents, teachers and the general public.

Routes for maximising the above impacts are described in the Pathways to Impact and Case for Support documents.



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