Joe Spencer

Final two, nervous now! Thanks for voting for me. It's been so much fun talking to you and other scientists as well!

Favourite Thing: I like solving problems, and the idea that the work I do has never been done before. Also getting to play with liquid Nitrogen and high power lasers is pretty sweet.



2000-2007 Spalding Grammar School, then 2008-2012 University of Southampton


4 A-levels, 1 Degree, a load of GCSEs, Power Boat II and my lego land driving license (it counts)

Work History:

I used to work in Morisons Cafe, then I worked as a civil engineer and designed the roof for IKEA in Southampton, then I worked in a GP, then I was a microbiologist, then I was a student, now I’m a PhD student.

Current Job:

PhD Physics student, which is basically a budding scientist. I work on specific problems and try to discover new things


University of Southampton

Me and my work

I use lasers to help us understand the properties of next generation electronics

I work in the field of Carbon Nanotubes and quantum physics, these are nanoscale drinking straws made of Carbon, and like a straw, I can fill them up with metals and compounds. The picture below shows what they are, the bottom part of the pic is a sheet of graphene, if you fold it up, like a piece of paper you get a carbon nanotube.


This is pretty cool, as I can make the smallest nanowires possible.

What’s Nano?

Well a nanometer is a billionth of a meter, about the distance a Navy Frigate sinks if a sea gull lands on it.

So I can fill these nanotube with stuff and make nanowires, the smallest nanowires possible just 1-2 atoms in diamter (or about <1nm), which is awesome considering the record at the moment for nanowires in technological devices (your phones) is around 10 nm.

Why is this important?

Well, all phones and computers etc contain electronic devices, the smaller we can make these devices and electronics the more we can fit in the phone/computer, meaning they run faster and better.


What’s Happening?

Well now I’ve made these wires I found something interesting, the atoms on this scale bond slightly differently as they would if they weren’t inside the tube, making an allotrope. Something made of the same material, but a different structure (kind of like the coal and diamond).

I thought, cool, new materials, but with a new material, it’ll have new and different properties. So I have to understand these properties before we make them into devices.


How do I do this?

I use a tool called Raman spectrometry which uses laser light to excite electronic states which then scatter of low-energy excitations in a sytem emitting a slightly shifted light

(Sounds complicated, It’s not!)

Imagine this, you flick a wooden table with your finger and listen to the sounds, you get a sort of dense thunk sound.

Now do the same to a glass, you get a light ting.

By just listening to the vibrations of materials you can tell what they are and make a guess about their properties.

Raman spectroscopy essentially does the same thing, I flick (excite) a material with a laser and then listen to (look at ) the vibrations and then can make an informed guess about the properties of the material.


So that’s my work, just ask me if you want to know more.



My Typical Day

Experimenting and thinking

(I’m omitting all the lazy things I do in this section to make me sound more productive)

I get in to work – check

I go into my laboratory and start the processing of turning on my laser system, a bench of green, red and blue laser light then gives the room a soft soothing glow. There’s lots of buttons to turn on, and some stuff I have to cool down, others I have to warm up.

I get some Liquid Nitrogen and start making things very cold (-200 ish degrees)

Whilst everything is cooling/warming, I go make a cuppa and start pondering what I want to discover this day, and how to do that.


I write some notes in my lab book to remind myself of what I’m doing and why and then head to the lab. I start some experiments, if this requires a lot of effort, I spend some time on thinking the best way to automate the process so I don’t have to do it (Work smart not hard).

I then set an experiment running, usually something like resonance Raman, where I tune the wavelength of light to match optical transition states of Van Hove Singularities that appear uniquely in 1D structures (I’m saying this now, as if you’ve read this far then you’re definitely interested in what I do)

Adter several hours of experiments and monitoring the data to ensure that the trends make sense and the data isn’t completely rubbish, I head back to the office to start using my computer (MatLab).

I import all the date I’ve acquired (which appear in text files) and start plotting them onto graphs, I look at the peaks of these graphs and fit the data collected to theoretical trends that I expect from my systems.

I think and write ideas down trying to turn graphs and numbers into scientific observations to understand what it all means. I also will read other scientific papers to try and see how my work fits in and whether it’s right. (It usually is)

That’s about it.

It’s interspersed with me doing outreach stuff and going to meetings and trying other ideas out and generally just having some fun when I can.


What I'd do with the money

Take the Accelerate show I do to London and elsewhere in the UK to perform it to inner city schools and inspire them to science

I run a show called Accelerate, it’s a lecture about the large hadron collider. But it’s so much more! it describes the science and engineering behind it using a sequence of fun interactive experiments, there’s explosions, electricity, beach balls magnets liquid nitrogen, superconductors, floating magnets. And most importantly, the public, usually young students that get involved in the show and put into the heart of the LHC.

I perform this show with 2 other people and we’ve had so much fun when schools come to us and listen to what we have to say, there’s laughter and amazement throughout the show and It makes me feel so happy to inspire young people both male and especially female into thinking about science.

Recently we were invited to do a performance of our show in a school in Hackney, we performed to over 200 girls at the secondary school. They were having so much fun during the show, especially when we turned them into a beach ball proton collider. But when one of the performers (Zoe) started talking about how she got into science, and everyone was silent listening to her, it made me think. Can we do this more, Can I take this to other schools instead of local ones coming to us. If I can, it’ll be so powerful at inspiring young people into the sciences, and show that it can be very fun along the way.


My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Random, Witty, Relaxed

Who is your favourite singer or band?

I just put spotify on shuffle, I’m a bit of a classical music nerd when I’m working as I feel like it makes me work harder. But sometimes I can be found listening to Taylor Swift (I’m so ashamed of myself)

What's your favourite food?

Homemade Pizza

What is the most fun thing you've done?

I once drove a tank, that was fun.

What did you want to be after you left school?

I always wanted to be an Astronaught, I used to think being a pirate would be a cool job (that was when I was 10). I then wanted to be a transformer. Then I grew up a bit and at 16 I wanted to be a Lawyer, then for some reason I had a change of heart and chose science. But if the option to be either of my first jobs came about I’d obviously pick those.

Were you ever in trouble at school?

Quite a bit, mostly being cheeky to my teachers, but I’d always wriggle my way out of trouble in the end.

What was your favourite subject at school?

Lunch-time, if that doesn’t count then Chemistry (mainly because my Chemistry teacher was awesome)

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

I’ve seen things never seen before by humans, ever. EVER! And it’s really quite amazing to step back occasionally and let that sink in. Presenting my research in San Francisco was also a good time

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

No-one in particular, sounds a bit egotistic but mainly myself and my own drive. Since being a scientist, Nikola Tesla has become some what of a hero of mine. He was such a genius, light years ahead of his time, probably even ahead of us now-a-days. He came from Serbia and moved the the States to make a life for himself and change the world. His brain was just amazing, he invented the electric motor and advocated AC. He was a pioneer of wireless technology, specifically wireless energy transfer, a technology he invented but has only recently become available.

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?

Probably a Lawyer, or Doctor or Magician

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

1) travel back to my younger self with my knowledge now and win at everything. 2) Go to the moon . 3) To be an internationally recognised scientist and celebrated for my achievements, perhaps even have a public holiday named afterme, not sure what’ll be unique about it yet, but I do know it’ll be similar to pancake day with regards to amount of pancakes consumed.

Tell us a joke.

I’m very good friends with 25 letters of the alphabet. I don’t know why.

Other stuff

Work photos:


This photo above is a long exposure image of my lab in the dark. I have to work in the dark a lot as day light can throw off my results. You can actually seel the laser beam bouncing off mirrors and heading to the sample. When you turn the lights off you get a party of red green and blue lights dancing around the tabletop.


This is my lab when the lights are on (sorry it’s a bit fuzzy) The bottle on the floor with organe pipe is liquid nitrogen, this is used to cool down the laser and get rid of all the water.

The big black box on the table is my laser. This laser is pretty cool, as I can tune the wavelength (change the colour of the laser coming out) it’s also quite powerful (about 1000x times more powerful than a laser pen.)

All the computers record lots of data and i spend a lot of time walking round my lab twiddling dials to make it all work


This is me twiddling mirrors to align the laser as best I can, we focus the beam to about the diameter of a hair and have to hit a sample of bundled nanowires smaller than a hair. So I have to make sure it’s going in the right place.


It’s not all just lasers and labs. With my science, I get to go all around the world and present my work to other interested people . The picture below is of the view out of Jena tower (somewhere in Germany).


This is just a random photo of me on conference where I found a room of mirrors…trippy




I also do alot of outreach/public engagment, this is the Meissner effect, it’s probably one of the coolest things in quantum physics (if that’s even possible)



And finally I said I work on this show called ”Accelerate”


This is what I’ll pursue if I win. I want to take this explosive lecture to central London and all around to inspire more young people into a career in science, or at the very least give an entertaining and informative show about the Large Hadron Collider.