Patrick Robertson

Dr Patrick Robertson

Postdoctoral Researcher

Vallance Group

patrick robertson


I grew up in Perth, Western Australia, which has the dubious honour of being the most geographically isolated capital city in the world (the nearest major city is 1500 km away, and it’s Adelaide, so you’re better off not stopping). My dad was a biological scientist, and fostered (or enforced...) a curiosity in how things work on me from a young age. My decision to study physics and chemistry was reinforced by a good friend (thank you to Dr Dougal Maclaurin), who’s academic ability kept me on my toes, and helped me recognise the joy in thinking about and solving difficult problems.

My undergraduate experience at the University of Western Australia was mixed. I found balancing my focus between what I enjoyed and what I needed to do very challenging, and took several gap years. However, I always gravitated toward physical chemistry, in particular molecular spectroscopy (thank you Dr Duncan Wild and Prof Alan McKinley).

After graduating, I migrated to Melbourne and lived on a couch in a friend's basement for a year or so doing not much of anything, before deciding that I missed science. I enrolled in an MChem at the University of Melbourne, studying electron transfer reactions in small peptides using ultrafast spectroscopy. I was finally in my element! With one problem to solve and lots of time to solve it, I did well enough to get a full-ride scholarship to do PhD under the supervision of Dr Evan Robertson, where I studied hydrogen bonded complexes in the gas-phase using IR-UV spectroscopy.

After graduating in 2018, I took a postdoc position at the University of Bristol, where I studied chemical reaction dynamics in the gas-phase and solution under the guidance of Prof Andrew Orr-Ewing and Prof Mike Ashfold. During this time, Covid happened, my son was born, and I got offered a position here in Oxford with Prof Claire Vallance, where I started in April 2021.
Current research

I am motivated by how simple models can be extrapolated to complex problems. 

My research in the Vallance group is centred around chemical reaction dynamics, which is the study of how fundamental physical forces govern chemical reactivity and the outcomes of chemical reactions. This field has been dominated by the detailed study of small molecules, and my goal is to find out how we can apply that knowledge to understand more complex chemical reactions that are of interest to the broader scientific community. The sorts of chemical reactions I study are ones initiated by light from lasers or by collisions with electrons, which are exactly the kinds of reactions that are important for astrochemistry, atmospheric chemistry, and radiative damage to biological systems. The outcomes of these reactions can be as simple as one bond breaking, or as complex as full dissociation of the molecule into its atomic constituents.

These experiments are performed using “home-built” apparatus, and so a lot of my job is designing and building new instruments that are capable of studying the sort of phenomena that we want to understand. Typically, these involve high vacuum systems, ultrafast lasers, and charged particle detectors. This lets me record the identity of the fragment products that are formed in the chemical reaction, what quantum-state they are in, the kinetic energy they are formed with, and their spatial distribution(s). This is (hopefully) enough information to get a clear picture of the pathways that connect the initial reactant to its final products.

The sorts of systems we look at in the Vallance group include DNA building-blocks, small peptides, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). In these systems, by applying the historic knowledge from small molecule studies, and using some fancy statistical techniques, we can visualise and begin to understand, complex multi-step chemical reactions.

Other interests

As I alluded to earlier, balancing work-and-life has been a challenge historically, but fatherhood has been a healthy dose of reality. My son occupies a tonne of my free time, and I love every second of it. Working in research can be stressful and all-consuming at times, so it is good to have something else that must be tended to on a regular basis. Luckily, the nature of my work has been flexible enough to allow me to balance both halves of my life. I would also be remiss to not mention the support of my wife Rosie, who’s unwavering support has allowed me to drag us across the planet doing what I love, and who’s occasional doses of harsh reality keep me from straying too far off course.

Outside of work and family, I spent a good portion of my 20s as a semi-professional Magic: the Gathering player. I was one of the top players in Australia, have travelled all over the world to compete at the highest levels, and made a decent chunk of pocket money doing so. I haven’t had much time to play in recent years, and so I am now relegated to pundit-status, and record a weekly podcast with a friend who plays professionally. 

Beyond this, I play basketball in the local Oxford league and train with the national second division team. I also love to listen to music of all sorts; from jazz to hip-hop to punk rock to death metal. Ask me for an album recommendation.