Course: Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Material Science & Nanotechnology
Institution: University of Wollongong
Location: Wollongong, New South Wales
Current position: Scientist, Semiconductor Industry (Carl Zeiss SMT GmbH)
Ben Mueller admits that his path to study in Australia was a “bit unusual”. Rather than continue the research begun during his Master of Physics at Freiburg University in Germany, Mueller opted to change fields and undertake a PhD in material science overseas.
“I wanted to study nanotechnology,” he says. “but I didn’t have any previous scientific contacts in this field so I just began researching online.” That’s how he came to find the University of Wollongong’s Intelligent Polymer Research Institute (IPRI) and its director, Professor Gordon Wallace.
“Gordon Wallace is doing a brilliant job, putting stuff – activities, news, not just a list of papers – online so that you can see that Wollongong is always moving forward,” he says.
Dr Mueller spoke in-depth several times by telephone with Professor Wallace to gauge whether the institution and the research environment would be a good fit for him.
“The group dynamics are important and it’s hard to judge how your relationship will be from a distance,” he explains. In hindsight he confesses that perhaps “it was a bit risky but it turned out to be brilliant!”
Dr Mueller chose to do a PhD by research and focused his attention on graphene, a flat, almost transparent sheet of carbon just one atom thick with a remarkable capacity to conduct electricity. He was part of the IPRI team that discovered how to stop graphene sheets sticking together, a process with major implications for energy conversion and storage.
“It was an interesting field to work in. It was fairly new and it was taking off,” he says. Subsequently in 2010, two scientists from the UK won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their groundbreaking work on graphene. Mueller says the field now has the highest publication rate in nanotechnology.
While acknowledging that the Australian system (as well as the accent!) took a little getting used to, he did eventually came to appreciate the guidance and the goal oriented approach of staff and colleagues at Wollongong, as much as the campus’ close proximity to the ocean.
“The Australian landscape is stunning, and sports, especially water sports, are terrific in Australia,” he says. “However, my most favourite thing was the Australian people, because they have a great sense of humour, are very social, relaxed, and appear to enjoy life with everyone who is around them.
“I expected to learn scientifically, to develop professionally,” he says, but adds that he didn’t expect the experience to have such a profound impact on him personally.
“As an international student you are in a different cultural situation. You need to ask for help a lot. It makes you a little more humble. You get to see what it is that people struggle with.”
Dr Mueller believes the reason he was chosen for his current position, which involves research in semiconductor manufacturing as well as coordination of R&D projects, because of expertise gained in Australia, and not just in nanotechnology.
“I think partly they chose me on my soft skills,” he says. “The leadership skills I learnt in Australia are very important in my current job. They enhance the quality of my work and boost the enjoyment I have in my work.”