Beyond physics: materials engineering
Science at the surface Mike DeArmond i s a s a l e s eng i neer f o r SIGMA Sur f ac e Sc i enc e. He wor k s w i t h researchers to define and provide solutions for experimental programmes focusing on materials, condensed matter and surface science
What sparked your interest in physics? I originally studied mechanical engineering, where we had an elective lab associated with my modern physics course that revolved around gamma-ray spectroscopy. This, combined with a gentle nudge from the professor who would become my adviser, led me to change to physics. One aspect of the lab was a series of mock poster sessions where we had to defend our work to a panel of professors. Being a department centred on physics education, the demand on explaining the underlying physical details of an experiments was high, and it was that challenge that pushed me to learn the subject better. Around this same time, I began lingering around my soon-to-be lab, peeking in and asking questions. This led to my first research project, which included resurrecting old equipment and building up apparatus from scratch. I think for a lot of students this is where they fade out and quit, but I revelled in it. Those early challenges represent some of my most satisfying lab experiences.
Did you ever consider an academic career? My Master’s degree was focused on thin films, and constructing and characterizing an atmospheric atomic-force microscope using a tuning-fork sensor. I was totally new to all of nanotechnology so it was a bit like being back at square one. I pivoted during my PhD, which was based around multiphoton fluorescence microscopy and ultrafast laser generation. I began graduate school with the singular goal of entering academia upon finishing. During my studies, however, I was introduced to a number of previously unknown career pathways through my peers and various academic collaborations.
How did you get into instrumentation? From the outset, my experimental work depended on me designing and building
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my own equipment, and I quickly learned the benefit of understanding how the tools I was using worked. Combined with the mock poster sessions, I gained an appreciation for the experimental equipment in the lab. I think there’s a benefit to working with a limi t e d budge t , whi c h f o r c e s y ou t o make s omething from scratch and inspires you to build things and build them better. We didn’t have off-the-shelf equipment, so I had to make my first controller from a circuit design tool, t h e n p r i n t and e t c h i t , s o l d e r t h e c omponen t s and programme the microprocessor. I even had to build the box. Each step was something brand new to me, but that only made it more satisfying. When I went on to graduate school and worked in a lab that specialized in these efforts, my admiration for what was required for this sort of work was multiplied many times over.
What were some of the challenges in moving from academia into a business role? Prior to taking my role at Mantis SIGMA (which became SIGMA Surface Science in 2019), I had never considered the costs associated with manufacturing a product. As a student making equipment from scratch, there is no consideration for someone making the same thing at a later date, and little outside of a lab notebook regarding documentation. Entering a sales position confronted me with what seemed like a strange maze of suppliers, costs, reliability, market and currency fluctuations, to say nothing of the engineering work that goes into each system or product.
What are some of your day-to-day responsibilities as a sales engineer? To my surprise, I probably read more journal articles today than I did as a graduate student. My role involves having a good understanding of the current literature and
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