Peter Brereton

  • January 17, 2011

Peter Brereton has long had a strong sense of service. From his early years in a Jesuit school to an undergraduate degree in the US Naval Academy and seven years in the US Navy as a submarine officer, national service has been very much at the centre of his life. Now he says that he is continuing that service as a scientist.

Peter, who was born in Washington DC which his father – a lobbyist for financial firms – commuted to regularly from their home in Cleveland, Ohio, had his first major introduction to the concept of community service when he attended a local Jesuit High School. When students were 16 they had to spend half a year in a service capacity. “We were living in an urban area. It was a crash course in how everyone else lived. The school emphasised our duty to give of ourselves,” says Peter.

He served as a teaching assistant to children in a nearby junior school. “It was good for the children to have a male role model since that was often lacking at home,” he says. He enjoyed it more than he had anticipated.

In 1997, after leaving school he opted to enter the US Naval Academy. There was no family tradition of going into the military, but a family friend had served in World War Two. “It was a family joke that I would attend and survive a military academy.  I was a bit of a book worm,” he says. “But the stars aligned and I decided to do it. It was an adventure.”

He says he was drawn to the Academy’s academic reputation and adds that it was a way to get a good schooling independent of his family, with a guaranteed job afterwards. He did a four-year degree in Physics which he says he had always been drawn to, despite the fact that he came from a family of writers rather than scientists. He had read lots of books about physics and well-known scientists and enjoyed tinkering with electronics.

The degree was very intensive and he combined it with learning about electrical and nautical engineering, navigation and weapons. He also had to go to sea and perform in military exercises. “It was a very immersive experience,” he says. There was very little time off and even in the free time there were internships to do. He worked on a physics experiment in the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico one year. In his third year he worked with the Royal Navy in the UK for a month, serving on the HMS Liverpool. It was his first time abroad and he found the culture quite different. The Royal Navy was full of specialists whereas US Naval officers were good generalists.

When he left the Naval Academy, he accepted a commission to work on cruisers and destroyers and to undergo nuclear power training with the aim of ending up on an aircraft carrier.

In 2001, however, he decided to continue his academic studies and won a Gates scholarship to study for a masters in Physics at the University of Cambridge. He said he was intrigued by the UK and viewed Cambridge as being at the heart of most of modern physics. It was the first year of the Gates scholarship programme.

While he was there he met his future wife and spent time thinking about the kind of Naval work he wanted to do and how that would fit with the technology he was interested in. He decided he would have more freedom and more opportunity to direct activity if he served on submarines, rather than an aircraft carrier. “As a submarine officer I could have an impact on national security and operate $100m equipment,” he says.

After leaving Cambridge, he studied for a nuclear engineering qualification in the US and did a crash course in how a submarine works. He was then ordered to the West Coast and served on two different submarines. “I went lots of places, but didn’t see them as we would go into the deep ocean and wait. Having a nuclear reactor on board we were banned from many ports. Then I served on an experimental new submarine, testing new equipment off Hawaii,” he says.

After several years in the Navy he decided to go back into academia. “I had always planned to do a PhD in Physics to continue my research and teaching. I had done some teaching at the Naval Academy and enjoyed it,” he says. In 2009 he decided to leave active service at the rank of Lieutenant Commander and applied to Cambridge again “on a whim”.

He says it was difficult to go back to being a student and leave his Naval career. His wife had to put her career as a lecturer on hold to move with him to Cambridge and many of the other students were much younger than him.

He misses the Navy, but still serves in a reserve capacity and could be called up in a time of war. “I don’t feel those of us who leave are lost to service. In fact, I see pure science as a form of service. I do not feel I have left service. I am just doing national service in a different capacity,” he says. He would like to return to the Navy in a teaching capacity.

Peter is doing his PhD in Professor Richard Phillips’ group at the Cavendish Laboratory. He is studying the impurity sites that occur in semiconductor quantum dots. These trap electrons and thus act like atoms. These clumps of impurities are incredibly small – about the 1,000th of the size of a human hair. “We can look at these artificial atoms and shine a light on them and track their behaviour,” says Peter. “It’s a lot easier than taking an actual atom and trapping it.”

In the long term, if scientists can learn how to control these they will be able to build scaleable quantum computers which will be many times faster than any current computer. “They will be able to solve problems which are insoluble now, for instance, to crack the code of any transaction on the internet,” he says.

Peter hopes that, after completing his research, he will do a postdoc in the US where he can be nearer his family and his wife, who has just given birth to twins, can resume her academic career.

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