Andy Norton

Congratulations, Barbara. A well deserved winner; you've been fantastic all fortnight. Thanks to everyone who took part - you have all been wonderful!

Favourite Thing: My favourite thing is that really exciting feeling when everything makes sense. You know when you are at school, and your teachers tell you about science, it all seems a bit unreal. But when you can SEE it actual happen, everything you get taught makes sense! And then you get excited when you realise all the other things that you could look at and change. Sometimes experiments do things that you didn’t expect them to, and it is REALLY exciting trying to figure out what it all means!



Ferrers Senior School (1997 – 2003), Sharnbrook Upper School (2003 – 2005)


Cambridge Unveristy (2005 – 2009), MSci in Natural Sciences, Oxford University (2009 – Present), PhD in Materials

Work History:

I’ve had summer jobs with Unilever, Pepsi, and various universities


Oxford University

Current Job:

PhD in Materials

Me and my work

I am smashing bits of ceramics (like the stuff that your dinner plates are made from), listening to how they deform, and then using a microscope to see what sort of damage has occurred.

myimage1 My project is all about trying to understand mechanical properties of a common ceramic, called aluminium oxide. As ceramics are commonly brittle (you know that from practice – drop a ceramic mug on the floor, and you’ll know what I mean!), there is a lot of work being done to try and understand this, and then make them tougher. When a ceramic is put under stress, it can either start cracking, or undergo some “plastic deformation” (such as things called twins or dislocations). So, I am trying to use a microphone to listen to the sound of the ceramic breaking, and trying to work out when it starts to break/deforms. I then look at the sample in what is called a Transmission Electron Microscope (or a TEM) (see image) to try and find what sort of breaking/deformation myimage2 has happened (see right hand image for example of this! This is what is called a “twin”. This is when the atoms rearrange themselves if a stress is applied. This is taken at 300, 000 times magnification. So these twins are around 0.00001mm across. Feel free to ask me about it!). With this work, we hope to have a better understanding of how these ceramics break, and so then we can work out a way to make them tougher!

There are other bits and pieces of my project which are related to this work – feel free to ask me about the work I am doing on the Focused Ion Beam (or FIB), the Scanning Electron Microscope (or SEM), the Optical Fluorescence Microscope (or OFM), or with cathodoluminescence! There is not enough space on here to describe all of these things, but I will answer all your questions if you are interested!

My Typical Day

I’m either on a powerful microscope looking at deformed samples, or destroying bits of ceramics and trying to work out what happened!

myimage3 There isn’t really a typical day doing my PhD, which is the really nice thing. Every day seems to be different. I’ll normally get in at 8:20am, check my emails and Facebook, and then head to the lab. From then onwards, I could be doing any number of things. Sometimes I’ll be making samples to put in my compressing machine: I have to make a powder, then squash it into a little disc, then heat it in an oven at 1600C (which is pretty hot!). Once I’ve done that, I’ll cut it up, polish it, and then head over to the big compression machine (see image on left).

If I’m not doing that, I might be taking those compressed samples, and turning them into things that I can look at in the microscope. I have to get the samples really thin (0.1mm across), then we grind a small bump in the middle to make the centre really really thin (about 0.01mm across), and then we blast ions at it to make a small hole. This can then be looked at in the microscope.

Sometimes I am not in the lab during the day, but am teaching students or helping to run an open day for people your age. This means that I get to do fun experiments all day, such as making silly putty or using liquid nitrogen to make things float.

What I'd do with the money

Design some new experiments, and then take some experiments to the local schools!

Although the department has a load of experiments that they run at Open Days (I help to run these experiments, and I promise you that they are good! See ), there a few additional experiments that I would like to include, such as comparing the different mechanical properties (like, the strength, how much they stretch before they break) of different materials, like plastics, metals, bone etc.! Also, I would like to visit more schools in the Oxford area, and show them how exciting science can be. Not all schools can make it to our department to learn about science from us, so I think that we should be trying to get to the schools to talk to the students.

PS – If you are interested in coming to the department for an open day, let me know and I’ll put you in touch with the person in charge!

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

A science geek!

Who is your favourite singer or band?

Where to start?! The Flaming Lips, The xx, Wild Beasts, Kanye West, Wu-Tang Clan and all the solo albums, Pendulum … a bit of everything, really!

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Ever? Ummm, possibly when I went to Australia a few years ago on holiday, and we went in campervan down the coast, doing surfing at different beaches, feeding kangaroos, and things like that.

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

1.Be able to do free-running (you know the guys that run over roof tops, jump from wall to wall etc.) without ANY practice. 2. Grow a big beard. 3. Have time to watch all the films that have ever been made! People always recommend films, but I never find the time to watch them!

What did you want to be after you left school?

Ummm, is it boring of me to say that I wanted to be a scientist?

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

Sometimes! I used to play football every lunch time (even at Sixth Form!), and we always got in late! (We used to play next-goal-wins, but we weren’t very good so games ran on for ages!)

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

A couple of summers ago, I had a job looking at crisps (they are famous – you have probably all eaten them!) – I had a video them expanding in an oven. It went really well – I got the work published, AND I got to travel and and tell people about the work, AND I got lots of free crisps! But there are lots of really, really great moments that I could have chosen from!

Tell us a joke.

Knock Knock…