CER Spotlight: Simon Bott-Suzuki
Principal Investigator, Pulsed Power Plasmas Group
Quick Fun Facts:
Favorite food: Cheese, ideally with wine. He even went as far as looking up what diseases or conditions could be caused by eating too much.
International adventures: walking the Inca trail in Peru, travelling up into the Scottish Highlands through the morning mist, family trips to Japan
Hobbies: Triathlon training, camping, cycling, reading sci-fi and fantasy fiction
Quote: “If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research would it?” Albert Einstein
Can you describe your research?
My group is primarily interested in two main areas: supporting the drive towards fusion energy, and utilizing laboratory plasmas to better understand astrophysical objects. Much of my work focusses on specific aspects of a large problem, for example how shocks develop in plasmas where magnetic field are present, which is part of the bigger picture in supernova explosions. Alongside this, we are also interested in novel pulsed power devices, plasma diagnostic methods, and developing fusion power plants.
What do you think a lay person with little to no scientific training might find most fascinating about your work?
That relatively small laboratory experiments can give us insight into how stars are born, live and die. We can make jets of plasma similar to those we see from accretions disks where stars are forming. Studying these jets may give us clues as to how a spinning disk becomes a much more slowly rotating star, and how the magnetic field of the star develops. Some stars end their lives in a supernova explosion, and the study of shocks in plasmas can help understand how the explosion moves through and interacts with the surrounding area. Finally of course we study fusion, the process powering all stars, as a source of energy.
What is a typical day at work like?
One of things I enjoy about my job is that every day is different. Things do get very busy, hectic, or frustrating at various times, but it’s never dull. I’ve just finished teaching for the quarter, so at the moment I’m moving from lectures and office hours back to lab work, calculations and data analysis. At various times throughout the year grant writing or conference preparation takes priority, but much of the time is spent thinking about the experiments we carry out in the lab at UCSD, along with those we’re involved with through our collaborations. We look to design new, interesting experiments which can investigate new aspects of the plasma system we use, either through ‘pen-and-paper’ calculations or computer simulations. The projects we work on are 3-5 years long with specified milestones, but the individual challenges change all the time as these projects move forward, often throwing up something entirely unexpected.
Tell us a bit about your path to get to your current position?
I completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Sheffield in the UK. It was during a summer project with a professor there that I first came across plasma research. A laser spectroscopy method was being used to analyze the rotation and vibration modes in nitrogen plasma lamps, which leads to a measure of the temperature inside the lamp in a very localized region. This ability to analyze intimate details of a gas molecule, and to map these details in 3D through a working lamp was fascinating. After a successful and very enjoyable summer I accepted a graduate position, and my Ph.D. focus was to non-invasively diagnose electron emission variability as deuterium plasma lamps aged. The range of techniques allowed me to tackle problems from different angles and we successfully identified a key issue, improving lamp behavior substantially for our commercial sponsor.
My range of expertise in plasma diagnosis led to a post-doctoral position at Imperial College London. Whilst the research was still plasma science, the focus was in fusion energy and space plasmas. This really opened my eyes to the huge range of possibilities for plasmas, I was fascinated to see how experiments could be redesigned to tackle new problems.
After 4 years in London, I was offered a position at UC San Diego, as a Project Scientist in CER and I’ve been here for a little over 8 years now. Prof Farhat Beg’s group was utilizing compact pulsed power devices to drive hot, dense plasmas. We successfully investigated a wide range of exploding fine wire experiments, and made significant strides forward in many of these areas. We installed a new compact pulsed power device and were the first university researchers to use this for wire experiments. We also extended the scaling of many systems to new current levels and materials to enhance the knowledge available in our research area.
A few years ago, I started my own group to investigate what other problems the plasmas generated by pulsed power devices could help solve. My main areas of interest remain fusion energy and space plasmas. Given there is so much of the plasma world and universe to be explored, there remains many areas in which novel, well-though out experiments can help advance our knowledge.
What is something your co-workers might be surprised to know about you?
On the English side, I’m the first member of my extended family to take a post-graduate course, and the only member of my immediate family to hold an undergraduate degree.
Do you have any advice for someone looking to get into your field?
All science is the meeting of theory and experimentation, and it is an advantage to have good knowledge in both areas. In my area, the ability to design and carry out detailed experimental work as well as construct, perform and analyze computational work is extremely valuable. Learn to embrace both aspects equally. Also, as with any research career, you have to enjoy doing the work. The freedom to follow your own lines of enquiry is the advantage of academia, but this also requires strong and enduring self-motivation. Learn to accept the fun times and rough times equally, and keep plotting your path forwards.