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Profile: Professor Michael Barnes

MIchael Barnes in yellow hoodie

Professor Michael Barnes, Tutorial Fellow in Physics

Professor Michael Barnes, Tutorial Fellow in Physics, received his B.S. in Physics and Mathematics from the University of Arkansas in 2003 and his Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Maryland in 2008. He then went on to hold an Oxford-Culham Fusion Research Fellowship at the University of Oxford and a U.S. Department of Energy Fusion Energy Sciences Fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before becoming an Assistant Professor in the Physics Department at the University of Texas at Austin. He joined the Physics Department at Oxford in 2014. Prof. Barnes’ primary research interest is magnetized plasma turbulence, with applications in magnetic confinement fusion and space/astrophysical systems.

Why did you become an academic?
For as long as I can remember, academic research and teaching has held an appeal for me: It provides the challenge of coming up with fresh ideas, the chance to discover new things and the privilege of sharing the experience with like-minded colleagues and enthusiastic students. Throughout my time as a student, I was fortunate to receive encouragement and support from my teachers and mentors, which went a long way towards helping me make it as an academic.

Michael Barnes in front of green shrubberyWhat are you researching at the moment?
Much of my current research is focused on how we can extract fusion energy from hydrogen gas by heating it to temperatures hotter than the sun. This hot gas, also known as plasma, is largely confined by applying strong magnetic fields that form the shape of a torus. However, temperature differences between the middle and the edge of the plasma lead to turbulent mixing that limits the confinement and thus the fusion energy output. I am using supercomputer simulations to characterise this turbulent mixing for possible reactor designs and to guide the development of new theories for how the turbulence can be suppressed.

How have you found teaching and researching during lockdown?
I have missed the in-person interaction with students and post-doctoral researchers, and there is no doubt that the spontaneous conversations that can lead to new research directions have been lacking. There have been some positives too: recorded lectures have enabled more flexibility in terms of format and content that I hope to incorporate in my teaching going forward, and collaborations with colleagues at other institutions have flourished.

What is your favourite part of being an academic?
My favourite part of being an academic is the freedom to research interesting topics and the ability to discuss that research with bright students and colleagues.

Do you have any highlights from your time at Univ?
Each year some of the Physics students give short presentations on a physics-related topic of their choosing, and we all gather over food and drink to watch and to ask questions. This is always a highlight of my Univ year, as I get to learn new and interesting things while having fun with the students and other tutors.

Professor Michael Barnes in red hooded parka in boatDo you have any advice for prospective students?
Don’t lose sight of what drew you to study your subject. Work hard to achieve good grades, but also take advantage of the time and resources available to you at university to go beyond the syllabus and to learn about other things that interest you. The opportunity to learn something just for the sake of it is a privilege.

Describe Univ in three words.
Welcoming, harmonious, stimulating

Published: 13 September 2021

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