When Anton Zubayer talks about his time at the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) in Switzerland, his passion is contagious. In his view, the research at neutron facilities is one of the pinnacles of what mankind can achieve in physics. One day he hopes to refine the facilities with his own research.
- There is plenty of room for improvements there, and that is what my thesis is trying to do. I try to find different material combinations to improve the instrumentation at the neutron facilities. More specifically, I am working on something called polarizing neutron optics, he says.
A neutron facility can be described as a very large microscope that allows the scientist to look at materials at an atomic level. They are used to study any form of material science, such as magnetism and the atomic structure of pharmaceuticals. In Europe there is one in Switzerland, Great Britain and France.
- At PSI they use huge particle accelerators that shoot protons at nearly the speed of light into a target that then, through a nuclear reaction, emits neutrons. It is a very cool machine, he says.
Big dreams need funding
Anton Zubayers academic journey began at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm, where he studied engineering physics for five years. Now, 27 years old, he is two years into his PhD- studies. The end goal, and dream, is to become a professor within the field of neutron scattering or neutron optics. However, Anton also knew he wanted to spend as much time as possible at neutron facilities, something that costs a lot of money. Money he did not have. His PhD-studies are financed by the Swedish Research Council and it is enough for some travel, but to go to neutron facilities as much as possible, he needed to find another way.
- So, I thought to myself, I need to find money on my own.
The plan was to apply for scholarships, and the plan worked. After writing around ten applications, in 2022, he received three of them. He became the first ever recipient of the Clark & Karen Bright Endowed Scholarship, an American travel grant, and later in the year he was awarded a prestigious scholarship from the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences. The year ended with a third scholarship, this time from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. In total, he was awarded 245 000 SEK, and has already put them to good use.
Photo credit Olov Planthaber He spent two months in Switzerland, Great Britain, and France at the neutron facilities, in stiff competition with others who applied to use the particle accelerators. To get beamtime you need a well- written application and have a project with potential.
- The work was intense. Usually, you don’t go on your own but I did that in most cases. I had to work around the clock, but I like what I do and is kind of a workaholic anyways.
Scholarships equals freedom
At PSI, the days were so long, he sometimes slept in the car to save time and to maximize the opportunity, and the effort paid off. A few days of good results turned in to a month-long stay. Anton knows that the time spent at PSI would not have been possible without grant money, but despite the freedom that scholarships can provide, very few PhD -students apply for them.
- I have asked around a lot about this. A lot of colleagues have enough for what they want to do, but I didn’t. On the other hand, I have had amazing support from my supervisors when applying for scholarships, they wrote a great letter of recommendation and helped me to use the money where I wanted to. A lot of PhDs do not have the freedom that I have now, he says.
And he will continue to apply for scholarships. Writing an application is an important part of being a scientist and with lots of repetition, the chances of good results are increasing.
- I learned a lot about writing applications from the denied ones. I have learned how to do it well, and will continue, he says.
Now, he wants to encourage other PhD- students to apply for grants and have the freedom to get as much as possible out of their time as PhD -students.
- I feel like I can achieve my goals now and not have to hold back because I lack funds for what I want to do, he says.
Thanks to the time spent at PSI in Switzerland and in part, the result from there, Anton Zubayer, together with supervisors, Associate Professor Fredrik Eriksson, Professor Jens Birch, and Associate Professor Naureen Ghafoor, is now trying to get a patent approved on a material that have the potential to improve the use of neutron facilities. But Anton
doesn´t want to say anything more about that.
In January Anton received another grant, from The Lars Hierta Memorial Foundation. This time it was 50 000 SEK.