Seeing smaller picture with nanoscale technology in vibration-free space

Research lives: Maurice Burke, chief technical officer, DCU Nano Research Facility

You are chief technical officer at the DCU Nano Research Facility – what work does it undertake?

“It’s a custom-built facility that houses lots of different pieces of equipment that researchers can use. We have 3D-printing facilities, we have electron microscopes, which allows people to see objects at a very high resolution, and we have equipment to examine samples at the chemical and even the atomic level.

Why do the machines need their own building?

These machines work and make measurements at a tiny scale, so they could be sensitive to vibrations from people walking nearby or closing doors, or even traffic on a nearby road. I was involved in helping to design the building to ensure the equipment can work without that kind of interference.

So to minimise vibrations, we have a basement with a special floor for the electron microscopes, and throughout the building we have machines in rooms that are not directly off corridors.

The NRF is also well away from the main road (Collins Avenue), so the traffic won’t affect the equipment. The building is really well serviced too, we have lots of power outlets, gas and data points.

What do you do there?

My job is to make sure that the machines work well, that they are available for people who want to use them and that the researchers who come in are well trained to work with the equipment.

We have a team of technical experts who train researchers so they are proficient with a particular machine, then those researchers can access and book that piece of equipment to use it for their research.

Who uses the equipment?

Lots of people in DCU, and also researchers from other universities and Institutes of Technology in Ireland. We also have customers from companies who want access to the machines, and sometimes we take in samples from researchers or companies and we run the analysis for them.

How did you get into this line of work?

I studied for a diploma in IT Carlow, then I came to DCU as technical staff in analytical chemistry. I had meant to go back to Carlow and get a degree, but I stayed in DCU. Then in the early 2000s I did a Masters here in instrumental analysis, and in around 2012 I started getting involved in the design of the NRF. We opened in early 2015.

What are the challenges of your job?

I think the challenge is making sure that the machines are all available when they are needed, getting funding to keep them serviced and updated and ensuring that the people who use them have been well trained.

Finally, how do you take a break from the work?

I really enjoy fitness and training, and the sports facilities here at DCU are excellent. Initially I started going to the gym early in the morning before work to avoid the traffic, and now I typically train twice a day during the week – maybe in the morning and then a gym class or a run lunchtime, or in the evening. That’s my main way to take a break.”

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