From small-scale lab curiosity to a UN major honour

Deanna Coleman interviews Professor Jim Scott.

Ever wondered how subway cards work? Or how everything fits on a e-money smartcard?

Welcome, Professor Jim Scott, humble St Andrean lecturer of physics and chemistry. Dr Scott conducts research into ferroelectric materials and devices, including the nano-memories. This has led to the creation of e-money smartcards and the development of oyster-card technology, leading to his scientific nickname – “the father of integrated ferroelectrics”.

Despite the tiny products Dr Scott works with, he himself has been awarded something a million times bigger: A UNESCO medal for contribution to nanoscience and nanotechnology. The first scientist in Britain to receive this award travelled to Paris last week for a 3-day trip to collect the prize, supported by his much-loved wife, Galina.

Dr Scott’s work started off as a simple ‘laboratory curiosity’ across the Atlantic Ocean at the University of Colorado, where he worked with only one professor, one young assistant professor and two students. The project that was once thought of being “worthless” and deemed to “never make a penny”, has now made over £100 million and is being developed across the world, as far as Japan and North Korea. Moreover, there is much hope the technology will reach the UK, following its success elsewhere in the world.

Dr Scott has been criticised by some newspapers for personally taking “no money from” this multi-million-pound technology. He kindly replies to these critics by explaining that lecturers at universities don’t own their research, emphasising that it does not mean he is mistreated. On the other hand, his research has enabled him to do so much – from traveling around the world, watching his technology develop, to buying a beautiful family home in Cambridge.

When asked what the major honour from the United Nations means to him, Dr Scott showed all the certificates and medals which he has previously received – some made of gold, and hailing from over seven countries around the world. Yet confidently the professor continued that the “UN is kind of special,” likening the award to a religious person getting “blessing from the Pope”. Furthermore, receiving the fairly-new prize from the director of UNESCO only further reiterated to Dr Scott how important the recognition is. He should be very proud for obtaining this.

Amazed by his dedication and work ethic, I questioned what his advice would be to people who wanted to achieve as much as he has so far. His response was a simple question to me: “You want to work at the United Nations, right? Well, the chances of that happening are perhaps one in ten… but that’s not zero”. He elaborated that one has to be “patient” because “nothing happens overnight”. Additionally, it’s important to “take some risk” and “to keep doors open in a situation where you have opportunity”.

Closely following this, Dr Scott spoke about his personal experience at Harvard University. Coming from a small, mixed-race community, with parents who had never been to high school, he was nervous as “all the guys in [his] class were from the Eton and Harrow equivalent in America.” While many would be put off by this, Jim positively got up every day to “try and do a good job.” Look where his tireless work ethic has got him today.

Like many physicists (apparently), Dr Scott likes working at freezing-cold temperatures. His current research is a continuation into the development of nanotechnology at -270°. This means that potentially his work would be used in space on satellites. Not to mention, some of his previous research at low degrees has already been used by the US Navy when launching the ‘MiniSat’ into low-Earth orbit last month.

The University of St Andrews is of course very lucky to have such a profound professor. We all wish Dr Scott the very best for his future research.

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