Power couple

Power couple

Spouses Ainur Zhussupbekova and Kuanysh Zhussupbekov are PhD researchers in physics at Trinity College Dublin. In this article, they are making confessions on benefits and challenges of being partners not only in marriage, but at work as well.


Kuanysh: I come from the suburb of Kokshetau. At school I really enjoyed physics. I found it interesting to observe and study the processes occurring in nature, yet even more I enjoyed designing, assembling and building various objects. Perhaps these hobbies influenced my choice. After graduating from school in 2007 with the required test results, I received scholarship to study Physics at the Eurasian National University named after L.N. Gumilyov (ENU). I continued my studies into masters level and upon completion I worked as a lecturer at the ENU for 3 years, giving lectures, seminars and laboratory classes, and, at the same time, doing research in the field of theoretical physics.

Ainur: I was born and raised in the East of our country next to the Irtysh River, in the beautiful city of Ust-Kamenogorsk, where I graduated from school. Completely unplanned, I was selected to the 1st grade, the teaching in which was carried out according to the method of Elkonin-Davydov's approach. As a 7-year old child, I did not notice anything different about this teaching method, I just enjoyed my classes. However, later, after working in education for several years , I was able to better understand the uniqueness of this teaching methodology and draw parallels between solving logical problems, completing creative research tasks and the formation of critical thinking, which is considered crucial for advances in science. After completing school exams, I embarked on undergraduate studies at the ENU. In 2012, I completed university with honours in "Technical Physics" and stayed at the university to continue my masters degree. Before starting PhD, I gained valuable teaching experience in the "Centre for Educational Programs” within the “Nazarbayev Intellectual School", developing a curriculum in physics, monitoring its implementation, analysing its effectiveness and conducting training for teachers. This experience was beneficial later in my academic life when during my doctoral studies I had the opportunity to teach interactive Physics in interactive way to teenagers at the Trinity Walton Club, an educational centre named after the Irish physicist Nobel Prize winner Ernest Walton.

Physics has bound us together

Kuanysh: Physics has brought me and Ainur together. We both studied at the Faculty of Physics and Technology at the ENU, met through mutual friends who also are physicists. One of our Irish colleagues Chris jokes that since both of us are doing stressful PhD in lockdown during the pandemic and still have not killed each other, then we are really meant to be together.

Ainur: We met during our undergraduate studies at the ENU, Kuanysh was in a senior class. We started dating in 2011 and 2 years later, when Kuanysh proposed to me to get married, of course I said “Yes”, yet with one condition - to acquire a PhD. It has always been a big dream for both of us.

Science is the closest thing to magic in the real world

Kuanysh: It is difficult to single out any specific factors that influenced my choice towards science. Probably everything that you do in your life and all the decisions you make affect your final choice of profession. Physics is the study of nature, understanding physics is understanding how the world works. It has been fascinating for me to be able to understand the laws the macro- and microworld operates by.

Ainur: I love reading because reading allows me to organise my thoughts, completely abandon the hustle and bustle of this world and immerse myself in the academic and imaginary world. Most of all, I like reading fantasy, especially the famous "Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter". The atmosphere of magical worlds where everything is possible inspires me. This is partly why I do science, because science is the closest thing to magic in the real world.

Our theses topics

Kuanysh: The topic of my thesis is «scanning tunneling microscopy and spectroscopy of layered materials». Some parts of my research have been published and available for reading (Google Scholar https://scholar.google.com/citations?hl=en&user=2Y4vLeMAAAAJ). My research focuses on the fundamental properties of two-dimensional materials. Two-dimensional materials are a class of materials, the study of which began quite recently and is very actively developing. Their main advantage is the ability to obtain ultrathin layers of this material, 1 atom thick, which would have interesting physical properties. Since these materials are new, they are at the stage of synthesis and fundamental research, yet they already predict a great future with an emphasis on applications in the production of hydrogen fuel from water, spin electronics, and even in quantum computers is already predicted for them.

The implementation of these studies is possible only on special equipment that allows working at the nanoscale. One of the main tools in my research is the scanning tunneling microscope, which works on the principle of quantum tunneling. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that it allows you to work at the nanoscale, to consider the smallest particles of various materials - molecules and atoms with incredible accuracy. The structure of a material determines its properties. The way the atoms are located in the material will determine define various physical properties such as the ability to conduct electric current, heat, undergo deformation, and so on. For example, I can take a new material, about the structure of which almost nothing is unknown, and get an image image resolving on which every atom of this material, which will lay the foundation for understanding its properties and application.

Ainur: I conduct my research in the field of Materials science, working on materials for transparent and flexible electronics. If we explain without using specific terminology, then let's imagine that we have two objects in our hands - a metal spoon and a glass made of glass. We know that a metal spoon perfectly transmits an electric current, however it is absolutely opaque and we cannot see through it. The glass, on the contrary, easily transmits light, does not transmit electricity. So, the class of materials I'm working on is called Transparent Conductive Oxides, unique materials that combine usually mutually exclusive properties of electrical conductivity and transparency. My research is aimed to synthesise and analyse of the effect of elemental composition on the electrical and optical properties of materials for flexible and transparent optoelectronics. These materials find their application in panel displays, touch screens, organic light-emitting diodes, low-emission windows, photovoltaic cells. A special attention is paid attention to the selection of non-toxic elements and precursors used in the synthesis and the financial availability of the method. Some parts of my research have been published and available for reading (Google Scholar https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=jBC2q_4AAAAJ&hl=en).

PhD challenges

Kuanysh: I will not surprise anyone by saying that it is challenging to do a PhD, and at times it becomes quite intimidating just the thought of inability to cope with certain issues. This feeling is particularly vivid at the beginning of PhD journey. It is not related to the Bolashak scholarship application process, being accepted into the graduate programme or studying in academic English, it is more about the work in the laboratory itself. My previous research experience was highly theoretical, therefore paper&pen were my main tools. When I first arrived to the Trinity College Dublin, I was deeply shocked by the abundance of "metal", huge stainless steel chambers materials synthesis or analysis of their properties. I remember the first day of the laboratory tour, Ainur and I spent the evening questioning our decision to embark a PhD, because it seemed very challenging.

We treat research, and science very seriously. We try to organise our lives and optimise its various areas (nutrition, physical activity, etc.) in such a way as to be productive at work as much as possible. This may sound like an extreme fanatism, but we discuss ongoing research activities and future scientific ideas every single day when opportunity emerges. Sometimes we meet with guys from Kazakhstan, who work in different fields, just to chat and make sure that we are have not lost our sanity due to work. They are our so called "reference samples".

Each of us leads our own project, our research focus on different classes of materials and we use different techniques. Ainur employs several spectroscopic techniques, since this is her specialised expertise, but I do not possess these techniques, and it will take me several years to fully master them. The same applies to me, because I specialise in microscopy, which takes years to learn fully. Thus, our skills complement each other and greatly expand the range of research that we as a team can conduct. Now that each of us has gained experience in specific field, working on own PhD project and certain specialised equipment, we can collaborate, generate ideas for joint projects, suggest what other measurements and improvements to the process can be made.

When people hear that we are undertaking a PhD at the same university, they think that we spend all the time together. In fact, sometimes in our PhD journeys we had not seen each other for several weeks, because we had been at a training or attending conference in different countries. Of course, now with the pandemic, the situation has changed and during the lockdown, we organised two working desks in the apartment, buying one and refurbishing the dining table. Frankly speaking, almost all horizontal surfaces in the apartment have turned into a workspace.

Ainur: Before I started a PhD when I imagined my PhD studies, I thought that it would be only intellectually challenging, to understand some concepts, read literature, comprehend, etc. But in fact, this path is also emotionally and mentally difficult, and in the case of experimental physics it is also physically challenging. You need to manipulate complex steel equipment, periodically anneal the chambers at high temperatures to achieve an ultra-high vacuum as the accuracy of your measurements depends on it, and this can be even extremely difficult physically.

It's actually pretty cool when both of you are doing science, you understand each other's emotional stress over a failed experiment, or you can help each other to fix broken equipment. Understanding the value of each other’s research work and setting priorities correctly helps us both build careers. Despite the fact that we work in the same research institute, our laboratories are located on different floors and we rarely see each other during the day, yet we are always interested in discussing current affairs during lunch break or dinner. Sometimes there is no time to cook food, and we end up buying frozen food from the grocery store or get takeaway. PhD is an unstructured working day and our friends sometimes joke about it: "You probably don't even have time to argue”. Our colleagues in Dublin are very surprised when they become aware of us doing PhD together as spouses. For Irish people it is also unusual situation.

One funny story happened when, in our second year of doctoral studies, we were writing a mini-dissertation for the confirmation examination which is a significant frontier that decides whether a work of a PhD student deserves to progress to next year. We had been working in the office until late. At about 10 pm I realised that I was exhausted and needed some time to recharge at home. At the same time, Kuanysh was busy writing the chapter and wanted to stay at office to work for a couple more hours. By 1 am when he still had not returned home, I began to worry because in the building there are a lot of high-voltage equipment and gases, leakage of which can displace oxygen from the air, which is fraught with asphyxiation. After not receiving an answer to the phone call and mail by 2 am, myself and two university security officers headed to the building. Upon entering the office, Kuanysh was extremely surprised to see us and did not immediately understand what was happening. He had been so profoundly focused on his work that completely lost track of time, and his phone was on silent mode. I think this ability to concentrate and disconnect from the external environment helps him to succeed in scientific inquiries.

The new world needs new materials

Kuanysh: I really enjoy doing science, it is an ongoing process of searching and discovering. The new world needs new materials, so ideally, I would like to continue research, expanding the range of materials studied for various applications. It would be great to be able to share my experience, mentor and teach students. Now, in the final stages of PhD at the Trinity College Dublin, I have the opportunity to train newly joined PhD students to work on equipment, hold meetings with them to discuss their progress and plan experiments. I would like to keep this spark for learning, work with enthusiasm and inspire others. One feature in European scientific culture that I am very impressed with is the ability to discuss ideas with experts in your field, professors on an equal level, without feeling authoritarian pressure and hierarchy, as well as being able to meet with them for a cup of tea or lunch in informal settings. I think this is exactly what helps science to progress - an abundance of opinions, ideas and the possibility of discussing them. I would like to develop this culture in Kazakhstan.

The most beautiful thing in science is that by doing research, you can not only build up the potential of Kazakhstan by teaching students, but also receive and publish results that will be beneficial to researchers in across the world, contributing to the development of science globally.

Ainur: The topic of my thesis is «X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy of novel ternary materials» and therefore I actively use experimental techniques based on X-ray radiation, one of the types of electromagnetic radiation. In the future, I would like to be able to carry out research not only in the laboratory, but also on synchrotrons, huge research establishments purposely built to obtain synchrotron radiation. Synchrotrons provide an opportunity to obtain unique information about the structure and properties of materials, which is not available in ordinary laboratory conditions. The construction and maintenance of such a research complex is not within the power of many countries. In Ireland, for example, as in Kazakhstan, there is no synchrotron of its own. However, the good news is that for synchrotrons in many countries you can submit an application with a detailed description of the proposed measurements and the expected result, and if the international commission of experts considers the proposed research interesting, they can give a grant for carrying out measurements free of charge. This requires serious work, applications are accepted only once or twice a year. I am already trying to apply for such grants. My first application for the BESSY II synchrotron in Berlin was successful and I was given the opportunity to gather a team of 4 people (measurements are carried out there around the clock, so two shifts of experimenters are needed), funding was allocated for travel, accommodation and expensive measurements that were planned in April 2020. However, the pandemic made its own adjustments and, unfortunately, all experiments were cancelled. I am not going to dwell on this and will be preparing new applications. I aspire for scientists from Kazakhstan to have the opportunity to carry out such unique measurements, and I will try my best to contribute to its realisation.

P. S. When we saw the suggested title of this article “Power couple”, we laughed as the first thing that came to mind when we heard the word Power was the formula “Power = Current * Voltage”. We couldn't decide which of us is Current and Voltage. I guess this is the professional deformation. .

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