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In many areas of spectroscopy, scientists working at instrument companies often make valuable contributions, by advancing the practical application of techniques and by educating customers. Andrew Whitley of HORIBA Scientific, is one such scientist. He works diligently to identify potential new areas for Raman applications, and also dedicates much of his time to educating spectroscopists and new users to the field about the benefits of using Raman spectroscopy. Here, Whitley discusses his continued interest in spectroscopy, his role educating others, and his hope for the future of Raman spectroscopy.
In many areas of spectroscopy, scientists working at instrument companies often make valuable contributions, by advancing the practical application of techniques and by educating customers. Andrew Whitley of Horiba Scientific, is one such scientist. He works diligently to identify potential new areas for Raman applications, and also dedicates much of his time to educating spectroscopists and new users to the field about the benefits of using Raman spectroscopy. Here, Whitley discusses his continued interest in spectroscopy, his role educating others, and his hope for the future of Raman spectroscopy. Based on his work, he received the 2018 Charles Mann Award. This interview is part of a series of interviews with the winners of awards presented at SciX.
Your PhD thesis at the at the University of Durham in the UK was titled “Vibrational Spectroscopic Studies on the Model Lubricant 2-Ethylhexyl Benzoate.”How did your PhD research help prepare you for working in the spectroscopy instrument industry and help you understand the needs of customers for spectroscopy?
I have always been interested in the applied, practical, aspect of science. How can science be applied to provide actionable answers to help solve real life challenges? I was lucky that at the time I graduated, from my BSc in Chemistry, there was a PhD program available that was sponsored and designed by Shell Research in the UK. My supervisor, Professor Jack Yarwood, and I worked very closely with Shell to relate the viscosity performance of a simplified “model” lubricant to inter- and intramolecular behavior. In summary, we looked at what parts of the molecule had the largest effect on determining the viscosity performance at high temperatures and pressures. This information was then used to help design higher performing engine lubricants. This work helped me look at the big picture of analytical science problems, including challenges such as turning spectra and data into solutions to problems. It is important to work backwards from the point of view of how can a technique be used practically by the end user. If the instrument, and results, cannot be applied in an easy to use way that provides meaningful and actionable results, then it is unlikely to be adopted by industry and become mainstream technology. This approach and way of thinking has definitely helped me throughout my career. To many, this approach may seem obvious, however you would be surprised by how many scientists get stuck in the weeds focusing on the data without already having a roadmap to a useful and usable solution.
You wrote a book chapter (1) summarizing important work applying Raman spectroscopy to optimize the performance of amorphous carbon overcoats (diamond-like carbon, or DLC) used in the hard disk storage industry. Can you tell us about that work and how it impacted the field?
This work is a great example of what excites me about my job. The end result was that hundreds of Raman instruments were purchased by the hard disk storage industry to provide improved product performance and day to day quality control. However, it took five years of hard work, often wearing clean room “bunny” suits, to establish Raman spectroscopy in the hard disk drive storage industry. When we started this work in the mid 1990s there had already been a number of papers published showing that amorphous carbon (often referred to as DLC) could be used as a protective overcoat, and partial lubricant, for magnetic disk media. A number of these papers also showed how the molecular structure and behavior of these carbon films could be determined using Raman spectroscopy. We set about proving to the disk drive industry that they could use Raman as both a product performance improvement tool and a monitor to maintain quality. This was real missionary work; however, the timing was good because there was a lot of money being invested in hard disk drive development at the time because of the need for higher and higher storage capacity in smaller and smaller devices, which was driven by increased requirements for rapid computer and entertainment devices. After a couple of years Raman became accepted as a critical tool, but this was only after we proved that Raman could be used to understand and monitor the tribological performance of carbon overcoats through understanding, from Raman, the molecular structure, which included a degree of hydrogenation and in some cases nitrogenation. This application was one of the first high volume industrially accepted uses of Raman. In the end, Raman became so well trusted that we were able to provide Raman systems to monitor DLC film thickness on the tiny read–write heads used in the devices.
You’ve spent a lot of time giving presentations and writing papers on how Raman and other spectroscopies work as well as the important considerations for successful spectroscopy. Why did that become a focus of your career?
Educating different markets concerning the capabilities of spectroscopy both expands markets and ensures users understand how to get the most out of a product. If a spectroscopy user purchases the wrong equipment or cannot use the instrument properly, it results in a problem for that user and the supplier. It also means that that the institute or company may give up on the technique. Well educated and supported customers generate good results, more publications, and therefore additional sales of spectroscopy equipment. This is a critical aspect of how we operate at my company. I also realized very early in my career that people, or potential customers, who could be using spectroscopy in their work to help with research or even product improvement, will simply not become interested in a spectroscopy technique unless they understand at least the basics of how an instrument works. Remember, even when workers know what they need and why they need it, they still have to explain this to their bosses. Often, they have to justify the need for more expensive equipment or components and accessories. My job is to make this process obvious and easy for our customers and the market in general. In addition, I have also always worked for companies that have the highest performing instrumentation on the market; this high performance also means that the instruments are not the lowest cost on the market. People have to understand what they are buying and why, in some cases, it may be more expensive. Explaining performance criteria helps people understand the value of an instrument.
Have any surprising collaborations ever resulted from your involvement organizing sessions for the SciX conference or RamanFest?
This is another aspect of my career that I enjoy enormously. I am fortunate that my company allows and encourages me to be so involved in the spectroscopy community. I want to take the opportunity here to thank all my managers over the years for being so open minded in this area. To answer your question, yes, on many occasions. Collaboration can happen in many ways too. It is very gratifying to me when I can bring together two or more scientists, who I respect highly, who then end up working and publishing together. This happens all the time at RamanFest and also at SciX sessions. We often have people attend sessions who are new to a technique and they end up becoming long term and successful spectroscopists. Also, some of our best Horiba employees have come to us as a presenter or through attending a session, where we discover a mutual interest and good dynamic fit. I also have some very good friends that I met through SciX sessions. FACSS/SciX and the Society of Applied Spectroscopy (SAS) are very good networking groups, filled with people who enjoy practical spectroscopy and are fun to be around.
How important is it to you to be able share your spectroscopy knowledge with the broader scientific community?
There are two aspects to sharing spectroscopy knowledge that I would like to address in my answer to this question and the final question below. In my current role, which is heavily oriented to marketing and business development, communication with the broad scientific community and potential markets for spectroscopy is critical. This communication is always a two-way street: The markets have to understand what spectroscopy can provide and we have to understand what industry needs from spectroscopy; once this bridge is made for each market or application then there is an easy free flow of ideas and discussion of opportunities. It is just as important to be able to say “no, there is not a fit here,” as it is to recognize when there is a good opportunity for spectroscopy to provide a usable solution. One of my key roles and goals is to identify dedicated potentially high-volume applications for existing spectroscopy products. We determine what the market requires to use a technique in an application in high volume, then, if necessary, develop a new version of the hardware and software. This process is normally done with one or two industrial partners. It was this approach that has proven successful in the disk drive, semiconductor, and pharmaceutical industries.
What is one thing you think the spectroscopy field is still lacking? Do you have any plans to solve that problem?
As industrial applications that utilize spectroscopy continue to grow there is a fundamental need for industry to have access to more trained spectroscopists and to have access to certified spectroscopy training. Without spectroscopy training, and trained spectroscopists, the growth of spectroscopy, which is guaranteed, will be slower than it should be. At this moment, certified industrial spectroscopy training is not something that is readily available outside of a university degree. Today, the majority of industrial users of spectroscopy either do not have a degree, or they do not have a degree that provided any spectroscopy training. There is an opportunity for SAS and spectroscopy manufacturers either independently, or more preferably together with SAS, to fill this gap. SAS is currently working on some ideas to help industry with this need. Some of the more progressive spectroscopy companies like mine already have programs for continuous spectroscopy education and support to ensure that their users are successful. It is hoped that SAS can partner with some of the suppliers and key academic spectroscopy leaders to develop this much-needed certified training. Such training would also benefit spectroscopy manufacturers in many ways too.
I would like to end by saying that spectroscopy today is as exciting to me as it ever was. Spectroscopy will continue to grow and be used in an ever-increasing field of applications. I have never regretted choosing spectroscopy for my career and I encourage other people considering spectroscopy as a career to move forward, as there will not be a shortage of interesting challenges and opportunities for a rewarding career. I also encourage those that are not members of the Society of Applied Spectroscopy to join as soon as possible. SAS is a wonderful network of spectroscopy information and people, accessible to all members. This year is also our 60th anniversary, which means additional member benefits through the year and beyond. Also, if you can get to SciX, in Atlanta, Georgia, in October, you are guaranteed high education and extreme fun!