Profile: Bernd Sturdza
Bernd Sturdza (2018, DPhil Physics) grew up in Germany and read Physics at the University of Würzburg. As part of his Master’s degree he spent a year at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, NM, USA, working on optoelectronic devices and optics.
Why did you decide to a DPhil in Physics?
Initially, my plan was to move to Seville at the end of my Master’s degree. But when I received the offer to do a DPhil here, I cancelled my trip that was just about to start. My friends had already booked a holiday to come visit in Spain, and did — without me. In my MSc. project I had looked at chemical doping of carbon nanotubes. The promising properties of these nanoparticles really fascinated me and I was intrigued to find out why none of the approaches to use nanotube thin films in devices such as solar cells or LEDs had worked so far. When I read the description of my DPhil project here in Oxford I knew it was the logical next step for me, as I’m now making these nanotube films. Even though the decision to continue working in my field was a natural one when it came up, I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay in physics before that. My fascination for physics has always been driven by the desire to understand what binds the world’s innermost core together. At the same time, I really enjoyed working with people and wanted my work to have a more direct impact on them than it might have had with fundamental research. I’m quite happy with the middle way I’ve found here in Oxford.
Give your specialist subject pitch!
Carbon nanotubes have outstanding mechanical and optoelectronic characteristics. Combined with their ultra-high aspect ratio of up to one million, this makes them a promising candidate for many applications. So far, as with other organic semiconductors, limited control of processing has prevented them from replacing their inorganic counterparts. For carbon nanotubes a main complication is their tendency to agglomerate to bundles due to strong van der Waals attraction. Polymer wrapping has proven to be a viable way to overcome this, allowing individualised tubes to be processed in solution, a crucial step towards large-scale applications. My work is focussed on understanding and optimising this wrapping process for the non-conjugated co-polymer ethylene-vinyl acetate to make better transparent conductive films from nanotube:polymer composites. Benefits of this polymer are its versatility, resilience and low cost. The process we’re using is all scalable and has been patented by my group, but has its limitations in lowering film performance. This is what most of my experiments are aimed at and we were able to improve electrical conductivity by more than two orders of magnitude since I started, getting in striking distance with standard transparent electrode materials.
Do you think you’ve changed since you started at Univ?
I’ve definitely changed, become more independent and grown both as a researcher and as a person. The open and welcoming atmosphere at Univ played a big role in that and I’m very grateful for the wide range of opportunities and encounters College has offered me. Being part of such a diverse community has given me many thought-provoking moments and broadened my perspective.
How has coronavirus affected your work and life?
The closure of the University has, like for many others, disrupted my experimental work completely and forced me to reframe my project. As a consequence, I learned to code and started running simulations in Python, one of the few positive side effect of this pandemic. Still, not being able to do the work I felt I should be doing took some getting used to and I often felt I wasn’t productive enough. In combination with the restrictions on social activities I felt like the same amount of work cost me a lot more effort, but I’ve realised many of us feel this way and it doesn’t help to get too stressed about work. Of course, I really miss seeing my friends and family, College sports, and all the many social interactions that have become so much harder.
How have you found moving and living in Oxford?
I found Oxford quite overwhelming when I first moved here. There were just so many things to do and never enough time — before the pandemic — to do all of them. The open and welcoming community in Univ has made it easy to settle in and I really enjoy spending time in College, the WCR, the hall or within the sports clubs.
Have you experienced any challenges that you’re happy to share here?
Switching from German to English wasn’t (and isn’t) always easy, but I soon realised that my fear of making mistakes was unnecessary as everyone has been really supportive.
Do you know what you want to do after your DPhil?
No, one of the benefits of doing a four year DPhil is that you don’t have to worry about the next step for a while. Joking aside, I think I will leave academia, at least for some time. I’m currently interested in various alternatives, ranging from data science to R&D or entrepreneurship.
Describe Univ in three words
Two seasons unbeaten (MCR football)
Published: 22 March 2021