School of Natural and Environmental Sciences

Dr Mike Probert

Dr Mike Probert

Head of Crystallography, Lecturer in Inorganic Chemistry and Degree Programme Director for Undergraduate Chemistry

Mike Probert delights in showing visitors the impressive equipment in his Crystallography lab.

He explains the use of each. He points out that one takes samples at a temperature that's colder than outer space.

Mike is Head of Crystallography. He's a Lecturer in Inorganic Chemistry and Degree Programme Director for Undergraduate Chemistry.

His passion for the subject is evident.

Mike working in the crystallography laboratory.
Mike Probert at work in the Crystallography lab.

Sibling rivalry triumphs over robotics

But his original ambition was to study artificial intelligence and robotical engineering. He had his eye on a course at Birmingham University.

Sibling rivalry got in the way when his brother bagged a place at Oxford.

Mike said: “My gran suggested his would be a hard act to follow, so I decided I needed to go to Oxford too.

"But there wasn’t a course in robotics there at the time, leading me to apply for chemistry. I got in."

Designing experiments, and equipment needed to put them into practice, harks back though. The original interest in machinery and problem-solving is never too far away.

After Oxford, Mike went on to a PhD, PDRA and Senior Research Fellow posts at Durham University.

Mike, pictured far right, is a keen rower.
Mike, pictured on the far right, is a keen rower in his spare time.

Work with X-ray diffraction

He designed, built and enhanced the capabilities of single crystal X-ray diffraction equipment.

X-rays diffracted by a crystal form specific patterns, depending on crystal composition. This provides the information researchers need to unravel the structure of the substance.

Diffraction is an effective way of analysing the composition of crystalline materials. But not every substance under investigation forms crystals very readily.

Some need extreme conditions, low temperatures or intense pressure, before this happens. Hence the array of impressive machinery in the lab.

Modern computers making "huge difference"

Modern computers with powerful data capacity also play a major role in interpretation.

It’s a far cry from the early days of crystallography. Researchers used pieces of card called Beevers–Lipson strips for necessary calculations.

Mike Probert keeps some of these early calculation aids in his office. They're neatly arranged in their characteristic wooden filing boxes.

He said: “It has been possible to do this kind of work since the early 20th century. We understood the principles.

"In the very early days it was only possible to confirm the composition of crystals. It was not easy to determine them as readily as we do now. And, of course, the calculations they needed to carry out took very much longer.

Computing power has made a huge difference and sped up experiments over the past few years. At one time, a single PhD thesis would identify, perhaps, three structures.

"During my own PhD, I identified between 50 and 60 random structures. I collected these along the way, while I was doing my research. I listed them in the appendices of my thesis.”

Keen area of collaboration

Crystallography is such a helpful technique. It provides the full structure of a crystalline material.

Scientists from other disciplines are keen to collaborate and make use of it in their own field of study.

Mike said: “Every chemist needs to understand what they have made.

"We've worked with the School of Pharmacy, since they arrived from Durham six months ago. Already we have results for three papers from that work.

"This kind of application of the science helps us to move forwards. We generate research networks across the globe.

"The basics of the crystallographic field are very well understood. But the ways we can apply them are wide ranging.

"We also work with industry, offering expert advice on developmental systems. Though we don’t necessarily know what the application of the compounds will be.

"This external work helps us to fund the research work we do. It helps us buy and maintain expensive equipment.”

Diamonds are among the crystalline materials that Mike looks at with x-ray diffraction.
Diamonds are used to exert the huge pressures needed for some crystallographic studies.

More speed = less reflection?

Speeding up experiments has proved beneficial in many respects. But Mike does sometimes feel that this leaves less time for reflection.

He said: “I used to set up structural refinements, make a cup of tea, and think before the results were available.

"It’s not only that this felt a bit more relaxed. It actually made you to think more seriously about what you wanted to do.

"It made you think about what was sensible, rather than plunging in and seeing what happens.

"Now it’s a bit like your mobile phone or a sat-nav. Users don’t need to know how the process works or understand the maths involved to use it.

"That can lead to a dilution of knowledge, a potential problem for the longer term.

Developing new active systems

But for Mike and his colleagues, understanding of the processes is key to their work in the lab. It has enabled them to develop novel experimental approaches and equipment.

It's also helped them develop new active systems with significant future applications.

Mike said: “One example would be something like an active pharmaceutical delivery system.

 “If we could design a mechanism that would release the active ingredient under given conditions in specified areas, we could enhance its use by making sure it reaches the target in a more controlled way and delivers very controlled dosage.

"There is huge potential across a range of different areas for this type of approach. It would utilise currently available drugs more effectively."