Building a research group, a reputation and a network

An interview with Dr. Nicholas Chilton of the University of Manchester

After doing postdoctoral research with the EPSRC National Electron Paramagnetic Resonance facility, Dr. Chilton received a British Ramsay Memorial Fellowship from 2016 to 2018 to examine how coordination chemistry can be used to engineer specific magnetic states of lanthanide ions. In 2018, he became a University of Manchester Presidential Fellow and in 2019, became a Royal Society University Research Fellow.

We met with Dr. Chilton to learn more about his research and hear how he’s worked to build his research group, its reputation and a solid network of collaborators.

Dr. Nicholas Chilton portrait

Could you tell us a little about your team?

The Chilton Group is part of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Manchester. We are working to understand the properties of magnetic molecules. We are interested in the link between molecular structure and properties, with a particular focus on how magnetic and optical properties can be controlled and engineered by molecular design and synthesis. We work with several experimental groups in Manchester and elsewhere in the world, employing SQUID magnetometry, optical, EPR and INS spectroscopies, multi-configurational quantum chemical calculations, and spin Hamiltonian modelling.

We are interested in the link between molecular structure and properties, with a particular focus on how magnetic and optical properties can be controlled and engineered by molecular design and synthesis.

In terms of magnetism, we have three areas of research. One is data storage in so-called single-molecule magnets. The concept is to store binary information in single molecules, which could theoretically increase data densities one-hundred-fold. For big data centers around the world, that would be incredibly valuable: compressing data storage, reducing energy requirements… and maybe that is even more important now that we’ve seen the impact of large numbers of people working from home and using streaming services all the time!

We also study molecules for potential applications in quantum information processing. There have been lots of demonstrations that quantum coherence in molecules are possible. However, designing molecules that can compete with other existing quantum bits is complex.

Our third area is prototype magnetic resonance imaging contrast agents. Here, we are hoping to develop molecules that can provide more information from a single diagnostic scan, thus reducing the time between diagnosis and treatment.

In terms of optical properties, we're interested in increasing the fluorescent output of biomedical imaging agents, and using optical spectroscopies to identify nuclear waste.

How many people are on the team?

We're going through a period of rapid expansion at the moment. Last summer I was awarded a Royal Society University Research Fellowship and an ERC starting grant: it’s amazing to have those resources at the same time. We’re going from seven people to about thirteen or fourteen in the space of a year.

Chilton Group - group photo

What strategies do you adopt to recruit new researchers to your team?

It's obviously crucial: your group and your research are only as good as the people you hire. Passion and drive are the most important characteristics for researchers.

Most undergraduate chemistry students don't have a great background in computational chemistry, so they have to be driven, motivated and hungry to learn when they join our group.

I do draw from students at Manchester, because we have a great undergraduate cohort. Other recruits are external. Generally these come from my network of collaborators, but I also post adverts on my Twitter page and here. I've got a piece of software for modeling magnetic properties that’s used by quite a lot of people around the world (you can find PHI here), so I also put pop-up adverts on that.

How do you ensure the Chilton Group stands out?

It's hard, but you've got to find a way to do it! Trying to find something unique or a fresh way of tackling an old problem will get you noticed, certainly.

I always try to pick relatively difficult and interesting topics. For example, we chose a stupidly hard problem in magnetic dynamics that no one had put the time into before, and it turned out that we can actually get something out of it.

In terms of writing papers, I try and stand out by writing clearly without jargon. I always try and treat it as if I'm writing a paper for my undergraduates because the area — a mix of quantum mechanics and chemistry — can be so dense with terminology. You've got to really strike the right balance depending on whether you are talking to physicists or chemists. So, I think writing openly with clarity is very important.

The final thing is that we've written a number of pieces of software that we release as freeware. That's been great, because that has given us a lot of recognition and we've had a lot of feedback from people to say it has helped them build new things and develop new ideas. That's been a really nice two-way street.

When did you decide to establish yourself as an independent researcher?

I don't think that I consciously made the decision. I got involved in research at the end of my first undergraduate year in a summer project. I continued that project throughout my degree, which was very fortunate. By the end of my undergrad, I think I had something like 20 research papers — and no questions about what I wanted to do with my life.

I wasn't looking to start my own research group then, just thinking about the logical next step: a PhD. And then a postdoc. But I finished my PhD early — after two years — and that was a clear moment of deciding to focus on getting a fellowship.

The most important thing when you're trying to develop your own research group is finding your own voice, and not just in terms of what research you’re doing, but how you communicate the research.

Building a professional network and working with the right collaborators is a crucial ingredient for a successful research group. How do you tackle this?

By virtue of doing a considerable amount of research in one area over ten years, my network of collaborators has built up naturally. It happened organically through my supervisor’s contacts during undergrad and PhD, and then through connecting with colleagues and friends who were also working with the same people.

One piece of advice: when you’re at a conference, just go and talk to someone. It doesn’t matter if they are a big fish. Ask them about something you don’t understand or if they have any ideas about your work. If they respond positively, then you can make a contact. If they respond negatively, then you don’t want to know them.

It is 4 years since you were selected as a finalist in the Reaxys PhD Prize. Could you tell us about your experience at the event?

I had a great time at Reaxys PhD Prize Symposium in 2016. Obviously, it was a lot of fun and there was a lot of really nice science going on. Fraser Stoddart was there — it was only a couple of months before he got the Nobel Prize, so it was really nice to have spoken to him then. I also got to catch up with an old friend from my undergraduate studies, Jamie Hicks, who went on to be one of the winners that year!

Would you like to share any advice with upcoming researchers?

I think the most important thing when you're trying to develop your own research group is finding your own voice, and not just in terms of what research you’re doing, but how you communicate the research.

At the end of the day, academia is a collaborative initiative and you have to be excited and passionate, but also approachable and friendly — a good colleague to the people you work with not just at your institution, but everywhere.

Ultimately, you've got to find the balance that allows you to be comfortable, engaged and happy. Then you'll do fine.

I had fantastic support as a young academic from my colleagues and department at the University of Manchester when setting up my group, and I certainly couldn't have done it without them. You have to have people that believe in you, and that will support you.