Winthrop father and son continuing the legacy of scientist John de Laeter

Winthrop father and son continuing the legacy of scientist John de Laeter

WINTHROP father and son Igor and Alex Bray share a special connection with the late John de Laeter, one of West Australia’s most influential and respected scientists.

A long-time mentor to Igor, it was Professor de Laeter’s conviction in his ability that persuaded him to take over as head of Curtin University’s Physics and Astronomy department shortly before his death in 2010.

That same year Igor was presented with the inaugural John de Laeter Award in recognition of his outstanding contribution to research leadership and excellence.

Fast forward to 2016 and son Alex has also scooped an award named in honour of the scientist; the Australian Institute of Physics’ John de Laeter medal.

The 21-year-old was selected as the best third-year physics student at Curtin University in 2015.

He has spent the past year completing honours at Australian National University in Canberra, working alongside supervisor Anatoli Kheifets on a project expanding the work of 1999 Nobel Prize winner Ahmed Zewail.

“The 1999 Nobel Prize was awarded for resolving chemical reactions as they processed in time,” Alex said.

“Basically they took a molecule, strobed it with a laser pulse and watched as it moved apart.

“Now we’re looking at using even faster lasers to do the same thing with atomic systems; it is on the horizon but not quite possible yet.”

A former Applecross Senior High School student, Alex said he had been exposed to the world of physics from a young age but that his original preference was for chemistry.

“I really didn’t enjoy physics nearly as much in high school; my best subject was chemistry but that ended up being the first thing I cut at university,” he said.

“With many of the chemistry fields we were being taught I would ask the lecturer how I could learn more about that topic and the answer all too often was through physics.”

Igor, a John Curtin Distinguished Professor, has worked on a wide range of projects; including the largest scientific endeavour on the planet.

“The project, called ITER, aims to design and build an experimental fusion reactor,” he said.

“The goal is to create limitless energy for mankind with just a small amount of seawater as fuel.

“It is the most ambitious and expensive scientific project on the planet.”

Next year Alex will begin his PhD at the Australian National University, but he will still find time to work with his dad, with whom he has already published five papers with several more to come.