Andrew Cairns

Can't believe I am in the final! Thanks everyone!

Favourite Thing: Getting to do, see or understand something that no one else ever has before is really exciting, and scientists get to do it on a daily basis! Spending time in the laboratory making beautiful crystals is definitely a good way to spend a few hours. I love when unexpected experiments work and it is your idea that everyone is talking about!



Dromore Central 1994 – 2000 Banbridge Academy 2000 – 2007 University of Oxford 2007-present


MChem (Chemistry)

Work History:

Part time work when at school: Barista (1 year), Receptionist/Security (2 years), Fundraising and Development (summer project)

Current Job:

I am currently a DPhil (Oxford name for a PhD) student in the Inorganic Chemistry Laboratory, Oxford.

My STFC Facility:

ISIS Neutron Diffraction Facility

Me and my work

I am a crystallographer working on materials that break records for both expanding under high pressure (‘NLC’ effect) and shrinking when heated up (‘NTE’ effect), behaviour that is quite bizarre and very unusual. Through x-ray and neutron diffraction we ‘see’ inside the crystal to try to work out why these materials do what they do.

All the materials I work on are made up from transition metals (in the middle of the Periodic Table) and cyanide, an ion made up of a carbon and nitrogen bonded. You may have heard of cyanide as it is probably best known as a poison – luckily the ones I use are not quite that dangerous but we always have to be careful. myimage8 The crystals made are beautifully coloured though – in the middle picture we can see a pink cobalt containing compound. I try to make the crystals as big as possible, as well as trying to make new compounds that no one else have made before. On the left we see a unit cell of the compound – the building blocks for the crystal and what we are able to see from diffraction experiments, and on the right some large colourless manganese containing crystals. The framework acts like a wine-rack or a piece of garden trellis – the hinging network shown below means that the pushing in one direction because of the pressure means the crystal has to expand in the opposite direction.


Actually making things probably takes up about a third of my time, with the rest is taken up with measuring the properties of the materials through diffraction experiments (where x-rays or neutrons ‘look inside’ the crystal) and understanding this by carrying out some spectroscopic experiments. Spectroscopy is a technique where we shine electromagnetic radiation onto a substances and measure what is absorbed – the absorbance tells us many interesting things about a system as it shows the vibrations, rotations, translations of a molecule. For our experiments I went to France to work with Julien who owns a huge number of lasers! A lot of time is also spent interpreting results and coming up with good reasons why we are seeing what we do and if it all makes sense we write scientific papers to tell the rest of the science world about our discoveries!

We work with scientists in central facilities, such as those owned by the Science and Technology Facilities Council, to do more sophisticated experiments. Last year I went to ISIS to do some high pressure experiments, the first time anyone ever had on the WISH instrument. During the first week of IAS I will be in Grenoble in France at the ESRF, so I will be able to update you on the live science going on then. 

My Typical Day

Try to get up early, fail, get up late, make it into work, check emails, mix up some cyanides, put crystals into an x-ray machine, maybe a neutron machine if I am very lucky!

We have no set hours in our group, so everyone has to be reasonably disciplined to make sure we do work sometimes! I usually come in late and stay late in the evenings, perhaps not how most people would choose to work but it works for me. After checking emails and usually dealing with lab problems, I can actually decide what to do in the day. 

Our supervisor, Andrew Goodwin, is almost always around although he has a whole group to keep track of! In the afternoon I will usually go into our laboratory to check on how experiments are going. If you’ve ever made copper sulfate crystals you will remember that growing them slowly means you get bigger crystals – the principle is the same in our experiments. The longest I’ve waited for something to work is about 6 months, that is a LONG time!

myimage4Some days I will be doing a specific experiment that will require me to be up much earlier and working long hours. These are organised centrally in the department and I get to work with many different people to get results. Here is a picture of one of the machines I use a lot – it has hundreds of moving parts, uses liquid nitrogen to cool the crystal and is run by three separate computers. Despite this, it is actually quite easy to use! 

myimage5 Science is actually a very sociable job – coffee breaks, lunch and dinner are often with other people in the group or the department. These are important parts of the day, not only does caffeine keep us alert, but we get to talk about what we are doing and hear what others are up to. On work days I do go out as well, depending on what everyone is up to. Below is a picture of our group Punting trip (a strange Oxford and Cambridge activity!) I live in college with other graduate students studying a range of other degrees, so it is also always good to get out of the science bubble! 

What I'd do with the money

I would like to merge the wonderful efforts of the Alchemists, a group of chemists bringing chemistry into schools, and Oxford colleges in running ‘experience days’ through the development of three sessions I can run to kids visiting from all over the country.

I would like to develop my ideas for three ‘academic taster’ sessions for school visits to my college and to the university in general. One of the problems with science is that it is really exciting (REALLY!) and you can do some really great experiments, however these can be expensive and require a lot of planning due to health and safety. 

I believe that shouldn’t put us off! Getting people involved in science is so important. 

The three sessions would be:

1) Disorder in order: the chemistry of ice. Using the research in our group on spin-ices, introducing the idea that things can both be ordered and disordered at the same time. In this picture, you can see that there are rules governing how the hydrogen atoms are arranged, but there are many different ways to abide by these rules and come up with a different pattern. We would explore the structure of water, ice (why it floats, etc) and how to make water. This would require the use of the department, supply of gasses etc, but should result in a fun show.


2) The chemistry of chocolate. Why does chocolate taste good? Why does in melt in your mouth, but not before? The chemistry of chocolate (and of food in general) is much more technical than you might imagine, indeed a lot of research goes into each bar! We would look at taste, texture, tempering through experiments that could be done in a lecture room. The best bit: why does chocolate flow in a chocolate fountain without burning you? The demonstration should lead to the answer… (everyone can try a bit)

3) Flexibility in solids. How do we get things to shrink on heating and expand under pressure? This presentation would be much more based on my own research, brought to life through various demos that require some equipment, such as Hoberman Spheres, spaghetti, etc. 

My college would be covering costs for any travel to schools, printing costs for handouts/literature, room-bookings in Oxford, as well as supporting visits with providing information about applying to university. Wadham have regular contact with nearly 200 schools across East London and East of England – many of which are amongst the most challenging schools in the country – as part of a raising aspirations and curriculum enrichment programme. I would like to build on these foundations and be able to connect with students visiting all colleges in Oxford.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Irish, Caring, Silly.

Who is your favourite singer or band?

I wish I was joking when I say Rihanna.

What is the most fun thing you've done?

White water rafting on the source of the Nile river in Africa. Photos show me looking absolutely terrified, but it was so near-death amazing! [myimage2]

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

Have a job I love, live in a lighthouse, somehow eradicate world hunger…

What did you want to be after you left school?

I wanted to work in environmental campaigning (for example, in GreenPeace) – needless to say, the plan has changed!

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

In primary school yes, because I punched someone who was bullying me (not advised!). My secondary school was a lot of fun, but we never did anything to get in trouble (although hiding in the principal’s office store and jumping out during a meeting in our last week almost caused an issue).

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

Going abroad and meeting new people is always fun, and it is how new and interesting ideas happen!

Tell us a joke.

Hedgehogs – why can’t they just share the hedge?

Other stuff

Work photos:

At the moment I am working at the ESRF in Grenoble, France. It is beautiful!


This is a picture of the second experiment hall at ISIS, where WISH the instrument I used last year is housed. WISH  is (I think!) the most expensive neutron detector in the world – it would cost more than Beckingham Palace is worth to replace. We put a high pressure cell inside it, with nothing but tinfoil to protect the detectors – perhaps not a good idea…


For the most of the time I work at The University Of Oxford at the Inorganic Chemistry Laboratory. This is where the Lithium-Ion battery was invented (your iPhone, laptop, etc will all use this as its source of power) and other pioneers have worked, such as Dorothy Hodgkin.


I work with many other people in our group, here seen enjoying a well-earned break!


The best time to visit:

The best way to visit Oxford to find out what it is like to study here is through a college – they can arrange a full day visit with lunch and academic sessions (see what I would do with the money for more info!)