Born in England in 1955, Nicholas Spencer studied at the University of Cambridge, where he obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry and earned his Ph.D. in the area of Surface Chemistry in 1980. Following this he worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied ammonia synthesis catalyzed by iron single crystals. From 1982 to 1993 he was employed at the Research Division of W. R. Grace and Co. in Columbia, Maryland, working in the areas of catalyst research, high-temperature superconductors, and finally as head of the surface science, microscopy, and vibrational spectroscopy groups. Since August 1993 he has been Professor for Surface Science and Technology at the ETH Zurich, and from 1996 to 1998 and 2002 to 2006 served as Chair and Head of the Department of Materials. From 2007 to 2015 he was president of the ETH Zurich Research Commission. He is editor-in-chief of the journal Tribology Letters.
The principal areas of his research are surface functionalization and characterization, with a particular emphasis on their application in tribology, implant materials, and biosensors. Atomic force microscopy and the surface forces apparatus play an important role in his group, as well as imaging versions of more traditional surface-analytical methods, such as XPS and SIMS. Recently, optical and other methods for the in situ measurement of surface-macromolecule interactions have been increasingly emphasized, as well as the use of polymer brushes and gels for tribological applications.