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Out of the lab, into the classroom

07 December 2016

Peter van Abswoude spent over four years working with electron beams. He now teaches at a school. His ambition is to inspire pupils and spark enthusiasm for his subject of physics.

Diagram showing how Time-Resolved Electron Diffraction works | Thesis Van Abswoude / F. Vigliotti / Angewandte Chemie
Diagram showing how Time-Resolved Electron Diffraction works | Thesis Van Abswoude / F. Vigliotti / Angewandte Chemie

Van Abswoude already considered going into teaching after his Master’s degree in Nanoscience, but decided to do a PhD after all. This is how he ended up working in the lab of University of Groningen physicist Petra Rudolf, where his job was to build new apparatus. ‘We wanted to be able to study very fast processes on an atomic scale in an ultra-clean environment. This involved integrating a number of existing techniques.’

If you want to ‘see’ atomic bonds form or break, you need a very fast technique. ‘These kinds of processes occur in about 100 femtoseconds. A femtosecond is a millionth of a billionth of a second.’ The technique developed for this with is known as Time-Resolved Electron Diffraction. You hit the material that you want to study with two pulses: a laser pulse that induces changes in the material and an electron package that arrives after a very precise time delay.

Challenge

These electrons create a diffraction pattern that is determined by the properties of the material that they hit. Any changes in the material result in changes in the pattern. Various groups around the world have worked on the method in the last 20 years, but Van Abswoude needed to apply it to an ultra-clean space. ‘That is only possible under ultra-high vacuum conditions, comparable with interstellar space.’

It was a real challenge to get all the components together. Building and testing the apparatus took longer than expected, as did the experiments that he conducted with it. ‘For instance, you need to adjust the lasers with great precision. Things often went wrong here, which meant adjusting them all over again.’

Peter van Abswoude | Foto Van Abswoude
Peter van Abswoude | Foto Van Abswoude

Industry

The lab work was challenging and exciting, but at the end of the project teaching beckoned once again. Van Abswoude applied for ‘Eerst de klas’, a training programme for young academics developed by the government, schools and industry. He now spends three days a week teaching at the Thomas a Kempis branch of Arentheem College in Arnhem, and one day a week doing teacher training at Radboud University. He spends the fifth day of the week on a ‘leadership programme’, which gives him the opportunity to visit businesses.

‘If I tell people that I’m a physicist, they often say that they found physics boring, all formulae and suchlike. I think that the teacher has an important role to play. I want to be good and inspiring as a teacher. I want to show the pupils the beauty of physics and how it plays an important role in the world around them.’ The ‘Eerst de klas’ programme should help him realize this ambition, as well as prepare him for leadership roles.

Van Abswoude’s main focus now is learning the basics of teaching: keeping order in the classroom and preparing lessons. ‘Luckily my school does lots of practicals, which I like because of my PhD research. This has made me realize how important it is for pupils to make precise notes and produce a reports about their experiments.’ The pupils at his school also work on projects a lot. ‘I love supervising them.’

Influence

He doesn’t know what he’ll be doing in five years’ time. ‘My department head at school also followed this the programme, but I don’t know if I’d want that job. It’s too much organization for my liking. I would definitely like to teach three days a week.’ He would also like to influence how physics is taught at schools, for instance by joining the national examination board. Committee work is something that he enjoys. ‘I sat on the Student Council at school, on the Faculty Council during my studies and was the advisory student member of the Faculty Board for a year.’ Is he aware that scientists are hugely underrepresented in the House of Representatives? ‘Never say never’, he smiles.

For the time being, he wants to teach, a job that is as fun and challenging as research. ‘I have fond memories of attending a conference in Canada during my PhD together with everyone else in my line of work. That really gave you the feeling of being part of a community. But now I am also in a fantastic group of 28 trainees and I work in a really friendly department at the school, which is equally nice.’

Peter van Abswoude conducted his PhD research at the Department of Surfaces and Thin Films at the Zernike Institute for Advanced Materials, and received funding from FOM as well as an Ubbo Emmius Scholarship.

He defended his thesis ‘Construction of a Setup for Ultrafast Electron Diffraction. First Experiments on Bimetallic Foils and Heusler Alloys’ at 11 a.m. in the Academy Building of the University of Groningen.

Last modified:14 December 2016 11.56 a.m.
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