Every year in CoS, dozens of PhD students defend their thesis and earn their doctorate, the highest university degree. In this series, we catch up with some new doctors to find out about their experience of doing a PhD in CoS, what made them embark on the intense four year journey and what plans they have for the future. Meet Dr Gan Weiliang, a research fellow from SPMS.
Weiliang did his undergraduate studies in Physics at NTU, where he met his current Principal Investigator (PI), Dr. Lew Wen Siang. His PhD journey was no ordinary one. A recipient of the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Award from Graduate College, Weiliang developed and commercialized characterization equipment used in his research, creating a NTU spin-off for their product (https://www.vertisis.com.sg/).
His PhD also brought him to the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz Germany, where he performed magnetic imaging at various European synchrotrons for three months. Synchrotrons are a type of cyclic particle accelerator, the most famous of which being the Large Hadron Collider. They are also where many significant breakthroughs in modern physics are made today. Weiliang’s team of four worked twelve-hour shifts for almost a week to maximize their use of the synchrotron beam and the facility. Although the work was tough and demanding, it remains to be one of the most memorable and rewarding experiences in Weiliang’s academic career.
After defending his thesis titled Skyrmion dynamics in magnetic thin films, we caught up with Dr Gan, who is now a Research Fellow at the Spintronic Research Group in SPMS.
You are a physicist. What does a physicist do?
Physicists explain how the universe works by developing and exploring fundamental ideas. More specifically, I would describe myself as an applied physicist; we use scientific tools and methods to solve practical problems. For example, my colleagues and I are interested in developing the building blocks of computation to improve its speed and efficiency. On a usual day, we would be conducting experiments (with some rather expensive toys) and analyzing the data.
What is your research field, in brief, and its applications?
Spintronics is the study of the magnetic moment of an electron for information storage and processing. The field of spintronics magnetism can be applied to replace or supplement electronics such as hard disk drives and other magnetic storage. Spintronic sensors are fast and sensitive magnetic sensors that are used to read magnetic data in hard disks. I also work on the development of next-gen magnetic memories, as magnetic random-access memory is an emerging field in data storage that could revolutionize the way we compute.
How did you find yourself doing work in the field of spintronics?
Eight years ago, I attended a course that was lectured by my PI. Inspired by the work his group performs, I have stuck around since then.
You have also developed and commercialized characterization equipment for research. Could you briefly tell us more about that?
When I first started my PhD, I needed a microscopy technique to image magnetization, to see where the north and south poles of the nanomagnets of devices were facing. Commercially available options were simultaneously inadequate and too expensive; it didn’t make sense to buy one. Therefore, I spent the first year of my PhD developing a magneto-optical Kerr microscope. Although the technique was developed decades ago, a persistent aberration caused a tradeoff between high resolution and high sensitivity imaging. At some point, I was inspired by bio-imaging microscopes and developed an optical path that neutralizes these aberrations.
Although initially developed only for our own research use, the imaging capabilities of the magneto-optical Kerr microscope soon caught the attention of other university research groups. We soon realized the significant technological edge that we had over commercially available Kerr microscopes. My PI and I decided to take a leap of faith and started a joint company with local distributor APP Systems to commercialize our system. The process was encouraged by the school management and significantly supported by the NTUitive Gap Fund of $200,000.
You won the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Award from Graduate College. Could you tell us how you won this award?
As scientists in NTU, we are well-trained in solving technical challenges in science. My PI and I took it one step further and commercialized our developed technologies. NTU is a very conducive environment for innovation and entrepreneurship in terms of start-up incubation, which greatly aided us in minimizing uncertainties and accelerating our product development. At the end of the day, our product was able to bring value to our customers. By word of mouth, our customer base has also seen significant growth. Despite the success so far, we continue to strive to remain relevant through continuous innovation.
Was it an obvious choice for you go for a career in science?
Yes, as a kid I was always curious about how things work. As I asked more and more questions, I realized that most of the answers I needed were in the realm of Physics. Physics is cool in the sense that most, if not all, modern technologies can be traced back to a few fundamental principles in Physics.
How was your PhD defense?
I felt my defense was calmer than I expected. The examiners were curious about my work and gave thought provoking suggestions for future research. Of course, there were also tough questions that challenged my deep-rooted ideas but overall, it felt like a sharing session. Perhaps having to present at conferences helped.
What are the most important things you have learnt during your PhD?
Great things are achieved step by step, in small steps. During my PhD, I have had the pleasure of working with many great minds. I found that the most impressive people were also the grittiest ones, who pushed on in spite of the difficulties they faced. I have also learnt the importance of good project management. During my four years, I was given a lot of freedom to decide what to work on. While that is a good thing, I found myself lost in the multitude of things that I want to do. And at the end, I am often overwhelmed. So, given the academic freedom, it is important to set goals and plan my work accordingly.
You now work as a research fellow with SPMS. What do you see yourself doing in 10 years’ time and where?
10 years is quite a long time from now and honestly, I do not know where I would be. Despite this, I am super excited for what the future holds. There are so many opportunities in Singapore and globally for a scientist. Currently, I am thinking of working full-time on my start up to realize some of my ideas.
What would you say to prospective or new PhD students?
A PhD is the best way to pursue something that you are passionate about!