5 minutes with leading scientist Cather Simpson

An obsession with puzzles led Cather Simpson to a career in solving them. The leading physicist and chemist is a professor at the University of Auckland, where she established high-tech laser lab, the Photon Factory

The Photon Factory uses exotic pulsed lasers to enable all New Zealand scientists to accomplish their goals, from improving products for industry to helping school students with science fair projects. Working with the Photon Factory’s 35+ extraordinary physicists, chemists, biologists and engineers, Cather and her team study everything from how molecules convert light into more useful forms of energy to how to better sort sperm by sex for the dairy industry.

As a professor and Chief Science Officer for two spin-outs, Cather is an entrepreneurial academic, which has led her recently to question how universities can better spark innovation and positive economic benefit for their cities, regions and countries. We touched on this, and why she's so passionate about making science accessible to all, in our (slightly longer than 5 minute!) interview...

What does Techweek's 2018 theme 'innovation that's good for the world' mean to you?

“Innovation that’s good for the world” is a tremendously optimistic theme, and I’m a tremendously optimistic person so it resonates strongly with me. The best innovations address the big challenges, and those are invariably global.

What global challenge would you like to see New Zealand innovators at the forefront of solving?

Clean and plentiful drinking water, healthy and affordable food, healthcare and wellness technology that ensures a lifetime of high quality living, restorative and sustainable management of the resources of our planet (and beyond), and creativity in the things that really make us human – art, music, literature, theatre, games, sport. I would love to everyone on Earth able to live that sort of life. If New Zealand innovators are at the forefront of making it happen, all the better!

You're publicly passionate about making science accessible to all...

Yes, I am – it’s one of the most important things I do, actually. The biggest impact I can make as a scientist is not in the fundamental science we discover or in the companies we create – it’s in the people we educate.

 The biggest impact I can make as a scientist is not in the fundamental science we discover or in the companies we create – it’s in the people we educate.

Sitting in our school classrooms right now are the people who eventually will lead New Zealand’s government, ensure social justice on local, national and global scales, and will help drive the solutions to global climate change and the other big challenges I discussed in question one above. The more science-literate they are, the more data-driven their decision making is, the better off the whole world will be. It’s not just me – the students and staff in the Photon Factory decided that public outreach should be part of our core mission, and we are indeed passionate in living that value.

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Who or what inspired you to get involved in science and tech in the first place? And what led you to establishing the Photon Factory? 

I’ve always been a “puzzle person”...someone who loves crosswords, Japanese number puzzles, brain teasers, Rubik’s cubes, jigsaw puzzles. I’m also a bit obsessive and fairly tenacious. I think it’s these traits that made me so keen on the physical sciences that I chose it for a career. My job is to unravel the details of how light carries energy, and how matter turns that light into more useful forms of energy. It’s a grand, worthy, difficult puzzle to work on!

So I became a university scientist and have been puzzle solving ever since!  For the first 10 years, I only did fundamental, blue-skies science. It took moving to New Zealand to get me to apply my scientific puzzle solving to anything more immediately useful.

The lasers I need to study light-matter interactions are pretty expensive, and the science funding models that worked so well for me in the US were simply not feasible here. The solution was to start the Photon Factory – a high-tech, state-of-the-art laser lab. The Photon Factory’s core mission is to enable the research of all New Zealand scientists – academic, industrial, CRI-based and student-led – through the advanced use of laser pulses to interrogate light-matter interactions and to manipulate and machine materials. We opened our doors in 2010, and haven’t looked back!

Now we work on all sorts of practical challenges using our lasers, and any other science and technology we need. We still do that fundamental research, but we also apply our expertise to solving problems like how to better sort sperm by sex for the dairy industry and how to make the diagnosis of suspicious skin lesions portable and practical. We’ve got a really energetic team of about 40 or so engineering, physics, chemistry and biology students and staff that work in fluid teams to achieve our goals. We publish papers, work with industry to make their processes more competitive, and spin out our own ideas as startup companies. It’s great, because it couples that attraction of solving the really hard puzzle with the satisfaction that comes from doing something that might make the world a better place.

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One of the Photon Factory's spinout companies is Engender Technologies, established to commercialise sperm sex sorting technology that could drastically improve international animal breeding programmes.

Are you able to update us on the latest Engender Technologies news? Where's the tech at currently?

Engender is at a really exciting juncture. We’ve just achieved an important milestone, and are actively engaged in a major capital raise. The next step for us is transforming our technology from the lab to full commercialisation.  Watch this space!

What do you think makes New Zealand innovation and/or innovators unique from a global perspective? 

I’ll answer this with a very broad-strokes generalisation. In my experience, New Zealanders have an amazing optimism about achieving technological challenges.  The Kiwis in the Photon Factory are full of ideas and remarkably ready to give them a go. That low barrier to trying out new ideas in the R&D lab catalyses innovation.  

What are you most looking forward to about Techweek'18?

I’m really looking forward to the surprises in Techweek’18!  Techweek events are never boring, and I always learn something new and useful that can help my students or our startup companies succeed.  That’s why this year my expectations are really high.

Do you "do" New Year's resolutions? If so, what are yours for 2018?

Well, there are the personal resolutions, like get more exercise and make more of an effort to keep in touch with family in the US.  I’ve also got two teenage boys who are in the process of growing into wonderful young men – kids should come with manuals! I’m hoping my partner and I can achieve the right balance between providing guidance and encouraging independence in 2018.

On the professional side of things, 2018 is about transforming the Photon Factory from a university research lab with a couple of startups into a thriving, high-impact “innovation hub.”  I’ve been doing a lot of reading about institutions with long track records of coming up with amazing ideas and turning them into useful tech and innovative people. I think the Photon Factory can become a place like that – we’ve spun out two companies already (Engender Technologies and Orbis Diagnostics) and, there are three or four more in the pipeline. We’ve built a team that is smart, innovative and entrepreneurial – and we’ve got a sustainable balance across our portfolio of fundamental and applied R&D. The building blocks are in place for us to make the Photon Factory a long-term positive for New Zealand and beyond.

Of course, we will have a positive impact with our science and technology, through vehicles like our spin-out companies.  However, the most important impact we will have aligns with the Photon Factory as sitting within a University. Our “innovation hub” will have its most long-lasting positive impact by “seeding” the economic landscape with our innovative, confident and entrepreneurial graduates.  

  • Good for the World