In an exclusive series of five unique portraits, Humans Invent profiles the day-to-day lives of scientists working at Sharp Labs Europe. Situated in an industrial park an hour and a half outside London on the outskirts of Oxford, Sharp Labs is the home of over one hundred mathematicians, scientists and engineers all experimenting and working towards creating new ideas.
The labs are responsible for cutting edge technologies such as glasses-free 3D, Smartphone LCD tech and Dual View. They recently rolled out laser headlights for the automotive industry and the lab continues to use its range of academic disciplines and passions to experiment in the name of discovery.
On the first day of summer we swapped shorts for lab coats to interview a scientist who not only works in the heart of this scientific melting pot – but who is innovating in the most progressive definition of the word.
Ben Hadwen, a Research Supervisor in the Health and Energy Technology Group at Sharp Labs Europe, has been principally working on a revolutionary technology called Microfluidics that could change the common blood test forever. Developed in partnership with the University of Southampton, Microfluidics combines micro-electronics in LCDs with blood analysis. The innovation is set to improve and speed up the analysis of human blood, with doctors able to receive results of blood tests within minutes using a mini laboratory that fits in the palm of the doctor’s hand.
Pulling down the blinds to block out the sun, the 35-year-old, a 6ft 2in northener born and raised in Bradford demos his latest work, giving Humans Invent a snapshot of laboratory life. The fact that the sun is shining for the first time in 6 months doesn’t even register on Hadwen’s agenda. He is much more concerned with his pipettes, and who are we to say otherwise…
From a very early age. I was hooked on physics at school and I went on to study it at University. I loved its logic; the fact that everything has an answer. After I left university I went on to work for a company that made CCDs for telescopes in outer space. CCDs are Charged Couple Devices. These are basically the little chips in the back of any digital camera that help capture the image but I was helping develop them on a rather larger scale. Then at Sharp Labs I started working on and developing LCD technology.
It was always about Friday afternoons in the lab. They were, and still are, the best times to play about, where the best ideas have been born.
What was the catalyst for your love of physics?
I think at school I developed a passion for studying how things work. I always had to know what the fundamental principles were behind how something worked. I always had to ask, ‘why and how does that work?’ And also, for some reason, my next thought process was, ‘how could this work better in the future?’ I think sometimes science can be trial and error but a lot of it is about ideas and being free to be creative. I think it is so important to keep asking ‘what if’ questions and not being afraid to try things out. For me, it was always about Friday afternoons in the lab. They were, and still are, the best times to play about, where the best ideas have been born.
Is there such thing as a light bulb moment or is invention more of an organic journey of discovery?
If I’m honest, the fun of working in a lab is that most experiments don’t work first time. Things are always going wrong but you have to accept this and ultimately enjoy it. The joy of the process is trying to understand why it has gone wrong and you hope that the second time, or even the tenth time around, it will work. You have to have no fear, be creative and just start trying different things out – that is the most important thing.
You are currently working on a project called Microfluidics. How different has this been to what you normally do?
One of the most interesting and exciting elements about the Microfluidics project is that you are combining cutting edge micro-electronics on glass with science – that has never been done before. At the beginning it felt a lot like we were in unknown territory. When we started we were all out of our comfort zone a little bit. Ultimately, this was a good thing and from my perspective I think it is the future of modern innovation – particularly in science and technology. There is a natural cross over.
The way things are now, most technologies are multi-disciplinary in the modern world, there isn’t one person that knows all the details and can tell you everything about a project. For a scientist like myself that makes it very exciting because you are constantly learning and applying your new found knowledge to things you already know – that is where innovation is heading. You are constantly working with interesting people who know things you know nothing about or haven’t even heard of before and between each person, working together, you can really come up with something creative and different.
The way things are now, most technologies are multi-disciplinary in the modern world, there isn’t one person that knows all the details
Actually I don’t. I know some people like to mess about but actually I’m very lazy at home. I leave my science at the lab. Quite oddly I am a bit of technophobe; I don’t like having technology at home. I don’t have a modern mobile phone or anything like that. I don’t even have a TV, I just prefer to read books and enjoy the outdoors.
Do you have a dream project?
Science doesn’t work like that. To be a scientist it is a given that you are passionate about your subject and slightly obsessive. Normally you are just engrossed on the project you are working on at the time – you don’t think about anything else, such as the future, or thinking ‘I wish I was working on that.’ Because of your nature you always find things in the project that you are working on that are interesting and get you excited – there is always a challenge. Science, and in particular physics is rarely dull.
Ben Hadwen is the first in a series of unique portraits capturing the day-to-day lives of five scientists working at Sharp Labs Europe.
Watch Humans Invent’s film – Microfluidics: The laboratory in the palm of your hand
Portraits shot exclusively for Humans Invent by Richard Grassie. For more of his work go to www.richardgrassie.com.
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