In a new series of blogs, we’ll be delving into the backgrounds of some of our most influential team members to get an insight into why they work in the field of organic electronics and how they became involved. Today, we meet Dr May Wheeler, Optical Test Manager at FlexEnable.
1. Was science and engineering always your chosen career path?
Yes, apart from a few other childhood ambitions such as wanting to be a poet, I always knew I would work in STEM. At school, I particularly enjoyed mathematics and problem solving, enough to attend Royal Institution mathematics masterclasses on a Saturday morning. From GCSE and A-level I found physics very interesting but also challenging and wanted to develop my understanding further. I spent a summer working in a physics group at the Royal Marsden Cancer Research Hospital as a teenager, and was given the opportunity to characterise a new tool, something someone with more advanced skills could have done in a fraction of the time but I found it really rewarding. I studied physics at university initially thinking I would later pursue a career in medical physics because I wanted to work on technology that would really provide a benefit to people.
2. How did you first become interested in organic electronics and what has kept you so engaged in this industry?
I was first interested in organic electronics during the final year of my undergraduate degree when I was deciding what to do after graduation – I’d become quite interested in solar cells. There was a PhD on offer in the same group I was doing my Masters research project, with a new academic who wanted to bring together thin film magnetism and molecular electronics (organic spintronics). One of the applications this research targeted was improving the efficiency of organic solar cells by utilising spin polarisation. Funnily enough, I didn’t end up working very much on organic solar cells but was focused more generally on introducing new functionality into more traditional electronic devices by utilising molecular properties.
After a PhD and Post-doctoral research position in molecular spintronics, I moved to Cambridge Display Technology as a device physicist working on OLED technology, optical biosensing and energy harvesting. Then I moved to FlexEnable, where I have worked on a range of interesting technologies including displays, biosensing and optics for augmented and virtual reality headsets. I have remained engaged in this industry because of the huge variety of interesting scientific and engineering challenges there are to solve. This is certainly an exciting time to be working in this field!
3. What have been the most significant breakthroughs you have seen during your career?
This is a difficult question to answer because there has been such a wealth of development in organic electronics. The most exciting thing for me is just how thin and flexible various organic electronics devices can be made. The new form factors that have been made possible by being able to process OTFTs on flexible plastic substrates of optical quality suitable for displays and other optics applications is revolutionary. The ability to biaxially curve liquid crystal optics really is a game changer for several major applications.
4. What other applications are there for organic semiconductors materials beyond Organic LCDs and LC Optics?
There are so many exciting applications for organic semiconductors beyond just displays, such as active optics. We can use OTFTs, and liquid crystal cells on plastic substrates, for tunable active optics for AR and VR headsets. And it’s all made possible because the plastic substrates can bend to follow the headset’s curved surfaces.
Beyond displays and LC optics, one project of particular note that I’ve been working on for a few years now is using this technology in bio-sensing. As part of SiMBiT, an EU consortium project, organic semiconductors are utilised in OTFTs to make up both a sensing array, and the addressing logic for the sensing array for a biosensor. The biosensor being developed is for early detection of pancreatic cancer and could revolutionise screening for this disease and save many lives.
5. What advice would you give to a student of a STEM subject who wanted to pursue a career in flexible organic electronics?
I would recommend going for it and most importantly have fun! If you want to be challenged and to keep learning, it is an exciting field to be part of. Particularly now, there are still fundamental learnings to be made for scientists, but also engineering challenges to solve. The application spaces that have been opened by organic electronics are also very exciting for people that want to see their work have a tangible impact.