Matthew works as a postdoctoral researcher at the James Franck Institute in Chicago, investigating how signals propagate through new granular materials.
He was awarded the ConocoPhillips Fellowship in 2014 after completing his PhD in physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). As an undergraduate, Matthew studied a Bachelor of Philosophy (Science) degree at the Australian National University (ANU), but says that his first step in pursuing a career as a physicist was taking part in the Australian Science Olympiads (ASO) Summer School in 2004.
“I had generally enjoyed all my subjects at high school, even if math and science were perhaps my greatest strengths, so I hadn’t really known what I would be doing beyond school. Meeting the staff of the ASO Physics program, who were mostly undergraduates in physics, showed me what a very plausible and enjoyable career path physics could be. Even though the summer school was difficult, I did fairly well, so that gave me confidence that I could go in this direction.”
Matthew went on to compete for Australia at the Asian Physics Olympiad in Hanoi, Vietnam, and the International Physics Olympiad in Pohang, Korea. Both trips afforded plenty of memories: there was the official inflatable kangaroo mascot (with an afro), eating exotic dishes such as acorn jelly, glace cherries on pizza and cheese ice cream, as well as the official opening and closing ceremonies. At the International Physics Olympiads, he won a gold medal, which assisted with applying for undergraduate scholarships in Australia.
“The Asian and International Physics Olympiads were my only trips outside Australia before I studied at the University of California during my third year as an undergraduate. I think the Olympiad experience gave me some confidence and comfort with travelling far from home and to a place where things are different. Without that trip to the US then, I probably wouldn’t have been game to sign up for five plus years in the United States for a PhD.”
Matthew grew up in Cowra, New South Wales, and attended Cowra High School. While he admits that there were not many other students as keen on science as he was in Cowra, he enjoyed living somewhere that had a real sense of community: “In a smaller town, you’re much less likely to find yourself only spending time with people your own age, or cultural background, or income, or interests, or whatever, than you are in a big city.”
Throughout high school, he travelled to Sydney and Canberra for multiple events and programs involving music, science and student governance – among them the 2004 Australian Science Olympiads Summer School at ANU.
As a staff member for the physics program, Matthew remained actively involved with the Australian Science Olympiads for several years. The Australian Science Olympiads Summer School is an intense academic environment and staff work hard to teach students the equivalent of a first-year university course in their discipline.
“Teaching material with which I’m very familiar forces me to try to get the opposite perspective: what my teaching will seem like to someone seeing the subject for the first time,” says Matthew. “Teaching is a skill that we need to improve constantly throughout our lives, especially those of us hoping for an academic career.”
While Matthew has not had as many opportunities to teach in the US as he would like, he is glad that he has had experience tutoring at the prestigious Australian Science Olympiads Summer School.
Currently Matthew’s work at the James Franck Institute is centred on statistical mechanics: the field of physics that helps us to understand disordered systems such as grains of sand or molecules of gas. As Matthew explains, this is analogous to quantum mechanics explaining the properties of metals and semiconductors, which are examples of ordered systems.
“The inspiration for my current work is a device known as the jamming gripper. It’s basically a rubber balloon filled with sand at a density low enough that it can flow easily, and conform its shape to whatever object it contacts. When air is pumped out of the balloon, the rubber tightens and causes the sand to jam, making the device rigid, so it will now hold onto whatever it surrounded without dropping it. This means that the device can pick up objects without knowing in advance their shape.”
“My work is looking at whether we can work out what a disturbance on one side of a granular material looks like – for example, the shape of the object the gripper is touching – by making measurements on the other side, where the gripper is attached to the robot arm. Can we cause a desired response on one side, by pushing on the other? Finding theoretical rules about how well signals may be able to travel through the sand involves a lot of linear algebra.”
When enigmatic granular materials and linear algebra aren’t keeping Matthew busy, he likes to explore the city of Chicago, to go to musicals and orchestra concerts, and to play board games.