Meet the Prof - John Dutcher

Posted on Thursday, February 16th, 2023

So the nice thing about soft matter physics is that it brings in aspects of other types of science. You can't just look at it from a physics perspective, it also brings in some chemistry and some biology and I'm a firm believer that the really interesting things in science are happening at the interface between the disciplines that we have artificially defined as physics or chemistry or biology. It's really at the interface between those different subjects that you get the possibility of learning something new and important.
Hi. I'm John Dutcher. I'm a professor in the Department of Physics, the director of the BSC Nanoscience Program and I'm a College Research Chair in novel sustainable nanomaterials. I've been at Guelph for quite a long time now, about 32 years. I grew up in the Atlantic provinces and I went to Dalhousie University to do my Bachelor degree in something called Engineering Physics. Following that I went from coast to coast out to the Vancouver area to UBC to do my Master's degree, intercalation battery, and then I switched to Simon Fraser University for my PhD and I did that on magnetism of very, very thin magnetic layers. Following that I went down to Arizona to do a PostDoctoral fellowship in the Optical Sciences Center and after that I I noticed a job ad for the University of Guelph and I thought I would apply on a lark and here I am 32 years later! Our research is really in the area of what you might call soft materials and these are materials that are squishy, as opposed to a hard material like steel or wood or something like that. Because of that softness there's an increase in the complexity of the system. In soft materials research it's really interesting because the properties of the material depend not only on the length scale that you look at it but also the time scale over which you observe it and that is inherently really interesting and complicated. So we would call that a very rich problem in science. We have a lot of equipment in my lab and and that's really necessary if we want to understand these soft materials because we have to measure them with many different complementary techniques to come up with a consistent picture of what's going on. You can't just measure it with one microscope and say this is what's happening. You have to measure it with this microscope and this spectrometer and come up with a comprehensive interpretation of all of that data that says 'okay, now we get it. right, this is actually what's going on.'
So in my research... it's really evolved over the years because of opportunities that have presented themselves. The opportunity to work with really excellent scientists in other disciplines that really enhances and strengthens the work that we're doing and leads to really interesting and unexpected results. So maybe the best example of that was our serendipitous discovery of this little tiny nanoparticle that is produced in the kernels of sweet corn. It's something called phytoglycogen, and we didn't know about it but we stumbled across it in an interdisciplinary project between my group in Physics and Terry Beveridge's group in Biology and it turns out that these little nanoparticles are very attractive for use in applications involving the human body because they're just made out of sugar and it's the way the sugars are bonded together that gives rise to these compact little nanoparticles that have a really interesting interaction with water and really promising applications in areas like personal care, nutrition and biomedicine.
Yeah so when a student joins my group they're given a specific project that that allows them to join a team that's working on an overall effort in that area. So they get a chance to work on their own little project but they are part of a team that has a very sort of comprehensive approach so they can learn from these other team members and benefit from that. I hire typically a couple of undergraduate students each summer and have students working, undergraduate students working in my lab during the year and I think that really enhances the undergraduate experience. Gets you past the idea of doing courses and moving into something that is unknown, right? That's the cool thing about research is that people don't know the answers and you as a student get a chance to see something for the first time and hopefully understand it. I mean what could be better than that?
So one of my big priorities for students in my group is to really work on their communication skills both oral and written and one really important aspect of that is to give students the opportunity to go to conferences and present their work to world experts in that area and have the possibility of interacting with those world experts. As a student I think it's one of one of the best things that you can do.
Back in high school I was actually interested in everything and that was a bit of an issue because I had to pick something to go to university, as does every student and so I guess it comes down to having some good teachers. I had spectacular High School teachers in both Math and Physics and that really led me towards that path. I then couldn't decide between Physics and Engineering so I decided to take a program called Engineering Physics. In my second year I realized that oh yeah I like physics a lot more than engineering. But you figure it out eventually.
Well we have a nice Department of Physics. Very closely knit representing a lot of different areas of science, but lots of interaction and opportunities to to you know bounce ideas off of somebody and even work closely together with them both in our Department as well as in other Departments. So in my research for example I've had the opportunity to work closely with people in Biology and Chemistry, Food Science, Engineering and that has been very gratifying and rewarding. That's the kind of atmosphere that exists at Guelph that allows one to reach out to colleagues in different Departments and do something fun together.
In a student I looked for curiosity. You know there are spectacular students in the classroom and in the lab but what really distinguishes a student for me is that need to know how something works, right? That curiosity.
And that's something you can't teach. That's something I think that people are born with and for me that is a really distinguishing factor in students and that's what can lead to new discoveries, right? If you follow your nose down the path right and then along the way you see something interesting that you don't understand and maybe that's a distraction but maybe it's even more interesting than what you were originally pursuing, and so the idea of following your nose in research I think is a really important one. And so right now we're studying nanoparticles from corn and plastic pipes, but 20 years ago we were studying ultra thin polymer films and how they soften as you heat them. I would say that my research program has undergone a large amount of evolution over the years but there are still aspects, touchstones really, that we come back to all of the time and that's the really gratifying part is if you can study a new system and relate it back to something that you have studied in the past and have understood in the past which brings new knowledge to this new system that you're looking at and that is when science works really well.

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