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Simon Watkins

Physics professor Simon Watkins makes science a hair-raising experience for his daughter Jenna Watkins (right) and her friend Samindi Fernando.

Crystal grower earns peer recognition

March 5, 2009

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Kids of all ages across B.C., even preschoolers, know SFU physicist Simon Watkins as the friendly scientist who makes stuff go snap, crackle, pop.

But this month the American Physical Society (APS) is honouring Watkins as a Fellow for his pioneering contributions to physics. He’s the other half of a scientific duo that created the world’s fastest bipolar transistor, a microscopic device that drives today’s fastest electronic network analyzers.

Watkins created microscopic crystals that have special chemical, optical and electrical properties. They enabled Colombo Bolognesi, a former SFU associate professor of engineering science, now at the University of Switzerland, to develop the bipolar transistor.

The duo’s invention earned them a Science Council of British Columbia award in 2001 for producing scientific and technological research that promotes economic development and new employment in B.C.

Watkins is now using his facility with crystals to transform zinc oxide, a familiar sunscreen compound, into a semiconductor that could make current scientific lighting technologies more efficient and economical.

"There’s a huge interest in using zinc oxide as a semiconductor because the elements used to make white light-emitting diodes are becoming increasingly rare," explains Watkins. "Also, the manufacturing process for making zinc oxide is substantially less toxic."

As laudable as Watkins’ work with crystals is, it’s his physical wizardry in classrooms, workshops and open houses that has won him grassroots acclaim. During his 17 years at SFU, he has engineered and hosted more than 70 science events for kindergarten to Grade 12 students and aspiring science teachers.

"As the father of three children, I believe it’s important for scientists to share the excitement of their work with students," he says. "However, I have to admit that I have always been a show-off. I remember authoring and proudly presenting encyclopedic writings about science in Grade three. I consider this award, which I value greatly, a recognition of my lifetime of bragging about science."

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