Scientist and university professor

23 January 2012

Name: Russell Holmes

Age: 28

Born: Winnipeg, Manitoba

Profession: Scientist and Professor

You learn a lot of things in college and university: How to live on your own for the first time with no direct parental supervision; how to manage your time effectively so that you can fit in going to class, studying, exercise, volunteering and a social life, all without having to rely solely on coffee or all-nighters to get it all done; and of course, what you're there for: to get a degree in something you love and want to make a career out of!

The people who are there to educate you on the academics side of university life are called professors. But professors do more than just teach you Science 101. They do cutting edge and exciting research behind the scenes too! This month, we talk with Russell Holmes about this A+ career.

What is an assistant professor?

An assistant professor is a junior faculty member who is responsible for teaching classes to both undergraduates and graduate students, maintaining a research lab, and participating in outreach to the surrounding community. At most universities, it takes about 10 years to work from being an assistant professor to becoming a full professor.

Wow! 10 years? That seems like a lot of school after high school!

It is, but it can also be fun and interesting. You are working on a variety of challenging problems, with varying degrees of responsibility along the way. As an undergraduate, you are still quite focused on coursework, and still trying to figure out where your interests are. Once you reach graduate school, you have a lot more freedom, and spend most of your time working on your own research problems and experiments, as opposed to being in class.

What is a typical day like for you?

A typical day involves a wide variety of activities. Most days, I teach an introductory course to 2nd year undergraduates about the properties of various types of materials. The students learn about metals, ceramics (the material that dinner plates and glasses are made from) and polymers. Polymers make up everything from plastic containers to silly putty!

When I am not teaching, I am usually working with my graduate students. These students have finished their undergraduate studies and are pursuing advanced research topics in my laboratory. One of the things I work on is a new kind of solar cell made from thin films of organic materials 10 billionths of a meter thick! These films are unique in that you can make working electrical devices from them on pieces of flexible plastic! Hopefully some day you will be able to purchase and install a roll of organic solar cells on the roof of your house just like you do with wallpaper today!

When I am not teaching or working with my graduate students, I am usually writing proposals to government agencies to obtain funding for my work. Being a professor is a bit like running a business. I am responsible for obtaining external funding to pay my students (including health benefits!) and to pay for my lab equipment as well.

So in fact, you are a teacher and a scientist.

That's true! Being a scientist and developing a strong research program is a very important part of my job, however universities (and professors) also have a responsibility to teach and mentor students. The two jobs may seem separate but often they overlap, and it is sometimes nice to bring elements of your research into the classes you teach to give students a view of cutting edge research.

What is the last movie you saw? Thumbs up or thumbs down?

Casino Royale — Thumbs Up!

Did you always want to be a professor?

I was always interested in mathematics and science, but I didn't know I would become a professor. During my undergraduate degree, I considered the profession but it wasn't until graduate school that I really decided that this was the job for me.

What courses in high school prepared you for this field?

Since I work on physics and engineering problems, courses in mathematics, physics and chemistry are especially relevant. However, excellent language abilities are also important when trying to explain your research to a non-expert.

What was the last book you read? Jam it or can it?

Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich — Jam it, strongly recommended!

Where did you go to university?

I completed my Bachelors degree in Physics at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. I then went on to complete my Masters and Doctoral degrees in Electrical Engineering at Princeton University in Princeton, NJ USA.

How did you decide where to go?

I attended the University of Manitoba because I am from Winnipeg, and in my opinion, the science programs at the University are very strong. I choose Princeton University for my graduate work because I was specifically interested in researching organic electronics, and Princeton had a very strong reputation in this field.

Was there extra training required for this career after you finished university? If so, what?

A lot of the training you require you pick up as a graduate student by watching other more senior students and professors.

What music do you have in your MP3 player?

The Bourne Identity - Soundtrack

What is the coolest part of your job?

There are two things. First, teaching undergraduates new things and seeing them get excited as they understand the course material. Second, developing and solving difficult research problems with graduate students and getting to see how different people take very different approaches to solving the same problem.

What country would you most like to visit?


What's the best thing about Canada?

The vast, unspoiled beauty that lies just beyond the limits of most cities.

Any advice that you would give others seeking a similar career?

Work hard in your science and mathematics courses, and take an active approach to your education. Most university departments offer undergraduates the opportunity to work in the lab and get a feel for how they might like graduate school. Be sure to explore these opportunities!

What are some great web links or references for someone interesting in reading up more about this career?

A good site from

Science magazine

on the hiring process for faculty positions:

On Being a Professor: Commentary: Click


The Princeton Review: Career Profile on Professors. Click


What is graduate school? Click



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