If you’ve ever been frustrated by your overflowing Rolodex as you juggle contacts for scuba diving, guitar lessons, recreational flying, and cutting-edge astrophysics research, then Western Science has the man for you. Jan Cami from the Department of Physics and Astronomy does all of these things, and then some. But where he really feels at home is on the business end of a telescope. Ten years ago, Cami and his colleagues discovered the biggest molecule known in outer space: the Buckyball – a spherical structure made of 60 carbon atoms.
“We’ve since found Buckyballs in just about every outer space environment, from dying stars to interstellar clouds and planet-forming regions, even in other galaxies than our own Milky Way,” says Cami. The discovery of these molecules was a significant step in understanding the processes that regulate how stars and planets are made, including our very own, as well as how galaxies evolve. Cami’s research focuses on the analysis of starlight to characterize the chemical compounds that make up our universe and the processes in which they play key roles. He is also continuing his work on Buckyballs, learning about the role they play in laying the groundwork for stars and planets to form. About a sixth of all the carbon in the universe is stored in Buckyballs and similar complex molecules that may be needed to make them – how and why this is has yet to be discovered.
It was Cami’s partner, Els Peeters, who actually brought the couple to London in 2006. “She was hired for a tenure-track position in Physics and I came as a spousal hire as part of Western’s initiative to attract international researchers,” explains Cami. “Early in our careers, we were told that the best we could expect was to share a full-time faculty position because astronomy is such a small field,” he says. This led to the couple taking divergent research pathways so that they wouldn’t step on each other’s toes. “Thankfully now we are more relaxed about working together. Dinner table conversation is pretty much as you would expect – full of galactic chit-chat, but after dinner, my guitar makes an appearance!” laughs Cami.
Every reading week, Cami and Peeters head to the Dutch Caribbean where they are sometimes “local” scuba guides at a friend’s diving school. Cami is also a qualified pilot, accomplished blues guitarist, and classically trained pianist. How he finds the time is a mystery even to him, but one thing is certain: his annual first-year physics class on oscillations and waves remains a highlight on the academic calendar as he breaks out his guitar and demonstrates the phenomena live, via electrifying solos.
With a diverse array of interests and a close brush with becoming a European Space Agency astronaut, Cami is clear about one thing: “Whether it’s work or play, I believe that doing what you love is a recipe for wonderful things to happen,” he smiles. At every step, Cami has followed his passion for bringing the marvels of science to people around the world. From the young child looking in awe through their first telescope, propped up on the bedroom windowsill, to his colleagues, still looking in awe through the magnificent infrared cameras of the Spitzer Space Telescope, Cami always seeks to stoke the fires of scientific wonderment.