Richard Conroy

Richard Conroy, BSc and PhD

Research Funding Program Director

What will you be doing in ten years time? This is never an easy question to answer truthfully in a job interview or one which you can predict with any degree of certainty. Ten years ago I was living in Germany, ten years before that I was applying to go to St. Andrews University, ten years before that I am not sure I knew what physics was or why I would want to study laser physics! When answering the question recently, I explained that I would be curious to find out myself what I would be doing in ten years time but that I wouldn’t end up there by chance.

Richard Conroy

I arrived in St. Andrews in September 1990 to study laser physics and optoelectronics supported by a Defence Science Group Fellowship and ended up staying for nearly nine years though it did not significantly help my golf game. The broad background of the first two years combined with the specialization of the second two years of the undergraduate program, helped me develop a good quantitative and analytic background which has been invaluable and a great transferable skill set. In those pre-Powerpoint and pre-Google days, I should have paid more attention in those electronics and magnetism classes though, because you never know what you will end up needing in the future!

The real value-add however for me of going to St. Andrews and studying in the physics department is the relationships which I developed and the opportunities which presented themselves. From getting a rent-controlled apartment in downtown Boston to teaching English for a summer in Hungary and working at the Institute of Plasma Physics and Laser Microfusion in Poland, personal relationships from St. Andrews have opened many doors for me. The physics department also played a significant role, supporting me to attend Institute of Physics and International Association of Physics Students meetings as well as providing me with a set of peers who work in diverse places from KPMG to General Electric and Amgen.
After a very successful final year project, I stayed in St. Andrews to study for my Ph.D. working on microchip lasers with Dr. Bruce Sinclair. The concept of technology transfer and commercialization was introduced to me early on as part of the EPSRC CASE Award funding my work and has continued to be a thread running through my career. Having now witnessed Ph.D. programs elsewhere, I now understand the importance of the community which exists in St. Andrews in helping students make the most of their time on both a professional and personal level.

During my Ph.D., I discovered that my particular strength was not in pushing the boundaries of knowledge back, but in understanding where the gaps are and trying to fill them in with my research. This knowledge took me to working first for Dr. Miles Padgett and then to working for Dr. Kishan Dholakia both of whom introduced me to ideas that would keep recurring in my research, though I did not know it at the time. Sensing that it was time to continue broadening my horizons, I applied for a Humboldt Fellowship to work on optical frequency standards at the University of Konstanz in Germany and spent two enjoyable years travelling round Europe, learning how to ski badly and discovering that building a tunable, CW laser with three frequency conversion stages and achieving sub-hertz frequency stability is not an easy proposition.

With my host professor taking a job as president of the Humboldt University of Berlin, it was time to move again in 2001 and I was fortunate enough to leverage my connections and multidisciplinary background to end up with a postdoctoral position at Harvard University. I spent four years transitioning from atomic physics to biophysics, in the process going back to school at Harvard for a Masters degree in Biotechnology and moving from the physics department to the chemistry department. From creating a Bose-Einstein condensate in collaboration with Dr. Wolfgang Ketterle’s group at MIT to measuring the forces required to pull apart two strands of DNA to working with Dr. George Whitesides who has the highest Hirsch index amongst living chemists, my four years in Cambridge gave me the opportunity to return to many of my earlier research interests in St. Andrews and look for new interdisciplinary gaps.

The transition was complete when I was awarded a fellowship in 2005 by the National Academies of Science to work at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) near Washington, DC. You never know when you might need a job reference and this particular fellowship required a letter from my Ph.D. supervisor, so it is always important to maintain connections! Adding quantification to research in the life sciences in an important challenge and I spent a very enjoyable three years analyzing the mechanics of enzymes which process DNA as well as techniques for detecting and manipulating magnetic particles in vivo and in microfluidic devices. I also reconnected with my commercialization experience and as an assistant professor in the biotechnology program at University of Maryland University College, where I began teaching courses on the early stage commercialization of research and mentoring final year projects with local startups.

With my research as far as I could take it and the economy in crisis, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act gave me the opportunity to move into the position of program director in the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, (NIBIB) managing the nuclear medicine portfolio. My background in physics again has been an invaluable asset, helping me rapidly understand the technology development, image analysis and radiochemistry grants which we fund and easing the gradient of the rapid learning curve. As with all my job transitions however this move had not been by chance and I had started working the year before on acquiring new skills through enrolling in an MBA program and taking the first level of the Chartered Financial Analyst exams, both of which were made easier by having an analytic background.

Dealing with Congressional enquiries, meeting with foreign science delegations and giving advice to professors on how to apply to the NIH for money is not what I imagined I would be doing in ten years time when I moved to Germany. However, I still get to indulge my curious nature and use many of the skills nine years at the physics department in St. Andrews gave me, and enjoy every minute of it.

First posted BDS 21.11.09