Department of Chemistry

Department of Chemistry University of Oxford

Name: Dr Michal Hejduk

Group: Brianna Heazlewood

Twitter: @FlyingPhysChem

LinkedIn

Biography

When I was born, I got a medal from a mayor of Prague, which was at the time under the communist regime. It was a welcome gift for all prospective comrades that would build a glorious future for the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. That future did not eventuate, as the country does not exist anymore, but I do work to build a glorious new scientific future for humankind.

My interest in science and technology was developed from various toys my parents gave me. I built complicated railways, whole towns for my matchbox cars and a slide projector. I observed the Moon with a telescope and read about the universe. I also built a water-jet rocket that ended up high on my grandfather’s roof, which made him cross because he had to ask many of his neighbours to help get it down.

At secondary school, I was one of the only two members of the physics club. I played with a laser, observing diffraction patterns and making holograms while others in the school were chasing a ball. Although I had to, because I was not that good at sports.

The period when I was studying physics at the Charles University in Prague was hard. I obtained a PhD degree in the field of the plasma physics and plasmochemistry, without really knowing how to make use of it, so I accepted the first science job that was offered to me from the University of Freiburg. From a scientific point of view, the research there was fruitless. When I happened to speak with an old emeritus professor, I let slip my frustration at being “forced” to do experiments that were not enjoyable or interesting to me. He responded, “Forced?! Do what YOU want! You are a scientist!” That opened my eyes and I applied for a postdoctoral position in Dr Brianna Heazlewood’s laboratory in Oxford.

Current research

In the Heazlewood group laboratory, I am constructing a device that confines a cloud of ions at such low temperatures (less than -273 degrees Celsius) that it “freezes” and forms a crystal. This will be eventually attached to a source of neutral atoms and molecules that move at a snail’s speed, typical for a gas cooled down to less than -260 degrees Celsius. By letting the ions and the neutrals collide in this way, we can study chemical reactions in their purest forms. In typical chemical experiments, one cannot identify the quantum states of reacting particles, making it impossible to determine which combination of states leads to a particular reaction outcome. However, in our experiments, neutral reactants are preselected according to their quantum state (which, very soon, we will also be able to do for ions as well). Gaining full control over chemical reactions is a long-term goal of this very new branch of chemistry called “ultracold chemistry”. Thanks to us, future chemists will be able to find new chemical pathways that reduce costs of production processes or lead to completely new chemicals.

In the future, I would like to establish an independent research program to learn more about Coulomb crystals, especially those containing electrons. So far, these crystals exist only in the cores of giant planets or white dwarfs. However, I would like to make them in a laboratory and study their potential to be used for quantum computing.

A little bit extra

These days, my children make me remember the passion for discoveries I used to have when I was a child. I often contemplate how to explain various phenomena to them and then realise that I do not actually know the details properly. That has strengthened my determination to stay in science, because I feel that I am obliged to advance scientific knowledge with all the education I have received. I look forward to starting my own independent research, in which I will combine my experiences in plasma, cluster and chemical physics. I hope that I will be able to go back to my homeland and make scientific advances worthy of the birthday medal I received!