Parade Profile: Alan Miller (PhD Physics 1975) 

Posted in: Parade profiles, Postgraduate

Professor Alan Miller has been named an Honorary Fellow by the Institute of Physics for his outstanding contribution to the field. Since completing his physics PhD at Bath, Alan researched quantum materials, lasers, nonlinear optics and ultrafast phenomena at universities in the US and the UK. Here, he reflects on his esteemed career and how Bath set him up for success. 

A white balding man in glasses and a blue shirt smiling and standing on a lawn in a wooded area.Why did you choose to complete your doctoral studies at Bath? 

I was always interested in how the world about me worked and as a youth I was fascinated by new technologies that were impacting on me – transistors, integrated circuits, LEDs, computers – so I loved studying physics at the University of Edinburgh and was thinking of a career in a hi-tech industry.  

Bath, with its applied focus, was offering a PhD project to study a new family of semiconductors. Initially I thought of this as an interim experience before finding employment in industry.  

As well as what turned out to be a great research topic, getting to live in the beautiful city of Bath – from one Georgian City to another! – made the move very appealing, with its surrounding countryside, amazing concerts in Bristol, and great pubs and cream teas. 

Did you have a particular career in mind when you were studying at Bath?    

I still expected the semiconductor industry to be my employment route, but each fork in my career road led me back to academia. 

Can you tell us about your experience of studying here? Any favourite memories, or places to go on campus and in the city? 

The campus has grown out of all recognition since my time on Level 5 in 4 West.   

Sharing a top floor flat in Milsom Street with two of my office mates, who became long-term friends, was a brilliant time. With its city central location, the flat became a mecca for visitors from across the University and beyond.  

The No.1 Club on The Paragon was our favourite drinking place, always attracting fascinating people and somehow managing to stay open into the ‘wee small hours’ despite a 10pm bar closing time.  

A highlight during my PhD was being invited as a guest researcher for a month at the Max Planck Institute in Stuttgart, which was a great learning experience.  

Describe your career journey since graduating.  

Towards the completion of my PhD, I was awarded a personal Research Fellowship from a UK Research Council which I took to Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, another 1960s era university on a beautiful new campus with a similar pedigree to Bath.   

There I was introduced to working with lasers, which set the scene for the rest of my research career in photonics with some significant advances in bridging the gap between physics and engineering.  

In the late ‘70s, I spent two years at the University of North Texas as a Visiting Assistant Professor, returning to the UK to take up a position at the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment (now Qinetiq) in Malvern, Worcestershire. There I established a research group in lasers, nonlinear optics, optical switching and ultrafast phenomena.  

The group that I had worked with in Texas moved to the University of Central Florida in the late ‘80s to establish a new research institute, the Centre for Research and Education in Optics and Lasers (CREOL)n in Orlando.  

I emigrated with a green card, and now with a family, joined my US colleagues as Professor of Physics and Electrical Engineering. This appointment came with shared responsibility for building a new world-class photonics research centre. Winning DARPA funding gave me access to top researchers in photonics across the US.   

Five years later, arranging a summer house exchange with a colleague in St Andrews led to the offer of a Chair at the university, in my home county of Fife, which I could not resist. One of the highlights at St Andrews was winning a £10m+ research grant as a seven-university collaboration which included Professor Ian White, the current Vice-Chancellor at Bath.   

I served as Head of the School of Physics and Astronomy, and then Vice Principal (Pro-Vice Chancellor) for Research.  

To complete the loop, in 2009 I returned to Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh for six years as Deputy Principal and Pro Vice Chancellor for Research and Knowledge Transfer. 

You've been a professor, fellow and researcher at many highly regarded universities. What made your experience at Bath unique? 

The University of Bath was a relatively new and ambitious higher education institution during my time there. It is always exciting being part of a growing institution. The early recruitment of outstanding academic staff was core to the University’s strategy and welcomed a growing number of fascinating people to engage with.  

Today’s top UK rankings make me proud to be a PhD graduate of the University of Bath. 

What is a typical day like in your current role?  

I formally retired from Heriot-Watt at the end of 2014 and continue to engage as Emeritus Professor of Physics.  

In 2015, I accepted the role of CEO of the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance (SUPA) employed part-time ‘in retirement’ by the University of Glasgow. Heading the SUPA Graduate School, the largest for physics PhDs in the UK with over 600 PhD students, has been a special pleasure.  

My main role over the past eight years has been leading on the strategy for SUPA and engaging with the eight Heads of Physics and the Heads of other research alliances in Scotland.  

One particularly enjoyable ‘pastime’ that I maintain is running an international research leadership programme, European Crucible, for early career researchers across all disciplines, building a research network of future research leaders between Scotland and Europe.  

I engage regularly with the Royal Society of Edinburgh as a Fellow, and I am humbled and honoured this month to be joining a list of highly respected physicists with the award of Honorary Fellowship from the Institute of Physics.  

How did your studies help you to develop? 

Moving from undergraduate to being a research student is a significant change in one’s life. Suddenly you’re having to plan your own time instead of turning up for lectures and tutorials scheduled by others.  

An important part of the PhD experience is learning how to make choices and plan. Bath allowed me to make this transition successfully, which set me up for my future research career. The research group that I joined in Bath was wonderfully helpful and supportive, sharing ideas and knowledge of methods and techniques in many practical ways.  

Playing squash was my favourite way of meeting others. My recommendation is to keep interests broad as you never know what opportunity may be lurking around the corner in unexpected ways via a chance meeting, talk or in the pub.   

Completing my physics PhD at Bath gave me the confidence to meet all sorts of interesting people. Looking back at my career, the real joy has been building many friendships with truly outstanding colleagues across the globe – that started during my PhD in Bath. 

Posted in: Parade profiles, Postgraduate

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