Speaker Interview: Richard Heenan - Future Applications of Small-Angle Scattering to Soft Matter

11 Mar 2016

Dr Richard Heenan has a degree in Chemical Physics and a PhD on Molecular force fields and structures, both from Reading University. He first started working at the ISIS Facility in 1984, where he was involved in finishing the construction of the LOQ, SANS, beam line. Now, regarded as a global expert in the fields of SANS, he is still there having fun with time of flight SANS at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.

What sparked your interest in science?

At school I did well in chemistry and maths and to a lesser extent physics, so to combine all three I headed off to do a Chemical Physics degree at Reading University. In those days computing had barely been invented and was not readily available in schools. I suspect that if I was starting over again now I might be tempted more towards computer science.

You are presenting at Future Applications of Small-Angle Scattering to Soft Matter. What led you to become interested in this area of science in particular?

My interest in soft matter research arose more by accident than design. My PhD was entirely computational work on the structure and force fields of small gas phase molecules. I then continued the theme of wide angle diffraction during a Postdoc in the USA. A second Postdoc position back in the UK, at the University of Kent, was to help develop small angle X-ray scattering at the then new Daresbury synchrotron. We did some test experiments on colloids. I then started to write my FISH software to reduce and fit the data. Seizing an opportunity for a permanent job, I took over the role of SANS (Small Angle Neutron Scattering) scientist with the ISIS pulsed neutron source at the Rutherford laboratory. I arrived before the very first neutrons at the end of 1984, though the user programme on the LOQ SANS beam line did not start until the summer of 1987.

So I found myself developing time of flight SANS, which enables the investigation of nanoscale structures in all manner of materials, including soft matter. The time of flight technique allows a wide range of length scales to be accessed simultaneously by using a broad band of neutron wavelengths. Being an instrument scientist soon led to collaborations with a number of soft matter research groups, in particular with Julian Eastoe at Bristol. These collaborations usually involved training PhD students how to use FISH to fit their data. (FISH is now being replaced by SASVIEW, a more modern code written and maintained by an international development team of which I am a member.)

What do you think are the main challenges facing scientists working in this area?

With many advances in software and SANS instrumentation the experiments and the systems we try to study can rapidly become quite complicated. Some people may be good at the chemistry to prepare samples, some at running complex equipment such as stopped flow or simultaneous rheology, others at data interpretation, so it is important to be able to build a team to deliver the best results for the resources invested. Facility instrument scientists have a key role to help to facilitate this, whether for academic or industrial research.

What keeps you interested?

I am always excited to try to unravel the meaning of SANS diffraction patterns from a system that has not been looked at before or seems to be behaving in an 'unexpected way', as this is where we learn the most.

What has been the highlight of your career to date?

Though there have been many scientific highlights, it was a privilege to be able to propose and then oversee the build and commissioning of our flagship high flux SANS instrument, SANS2d, on the ISIS second target station.

Would you have done anything differently?

With the benefit of hindsight there were a few technical things we could have done differently in the initial build of SANS2d, but no major science project runs completely smoothly, so we learnt from the circumstances and solved the issues.

What would someone at the start of the career need to do to achieve what you have?

Be flexible to take up new opportunities as they arise, realise you own limitations and find others to help when needed, be very organised, pray and work hard.

If you had not pursued a career in this field, what would you have done?

(see first question)

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