Nanomaterials: no small matter
Birmingham Fellow, Pola Goldberg Oppenheimer, leads a research group focusing on Advanced Materials, Structures and Applications (AMSA) in the School of Chemical Engineering. This summer, Pola will address listeners at the 2014 Soapbox Science event at London’s Southbank having been selected as a leading UK female scientist.
Here Pola talks about the importance of her research and her passion for science as a career.
How did you get to your current position?
My interest in science developed from a very young age through my curiosity in technology and love for exploring. I started my studies in Chemical Engineering (BEng) and Chemistry (BSc) at the Ben-Gurion University in 2001 where I went on to obtain a Master of Science degree in in Biochemical Engineering in 2007 for my work on gold-labelling enhanced transmission electron microscopy imaging of carbon nanotubes and nanobio-assays. In 2007 I received a competitive overseas research scholarship from Kodak Ltd to commence my doctoral course in Physics at the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. In 2011 I undertook a postdoctoral research position in the Electrical Engineering Department specializing in growth, characterization and applications of carbon nanomaterials. In August 2013, I became a University Academic Fellow at the School of Chemical Engineering, University of Birmingham, leading a research group focusing on Advanced Materials, Structures and Applications (AMSA).
What inspired you to pursue a career in science?
From childhood I have always been an ‘incorrigible tinkerer’. I learnt, for instance, about electricity by sticking a metal hairpin into an electrical socket, fascinated to see what would happen (luckily the fuse blew and I survived the shock!). During my University years, I have realised that research, particularly in the field of nanotechnology (which is, in simple terms, ‘engineering on a very small scale’) provides an entirely new set of tiny sockets to stick tiny new pins in, providing a greater understanding of this world of atoms and molecules which affects the everyday objects we see around us as well as our daily lives.
For me a career in science and carrying out novel research is unique: it has no routine, each day is different, each day we learn something new, we explore and discover and we better understand the unknown. It is truly one of the most intellectually independent and stimulating careers imaginable.
Through science, we have the potential to pave the way for new discoveries and hugely impact future generations.
This along with my curiosity and passion for learning and exploring, made academia a natural pathway for me.
What is the most fascinating aspect of your research?
My research is about ‘small’ things. We understand the world intuitively over only a tiny range of sizes: sizes in the middle, between ‘’very large’’ and ‘’very small’’ we can comprehend. We know how a splinter stings when it slips under our thumbnail, how much a sack of potatoes weighs, how it feels to kick a football…but, we have never dropped a planet or knowingly sat on an individual atom. When things are approximately our size, we understand them through repeated experience. Over time, our accumulated experience settles into intuition. When things are much bigger than we are, or much smaller, we don’t understand them in the same sense. Two words are often associated with small things: nano and micro. Each is a unit of size, both are invisibly small. The smallest objects we can see without a microscope - a hair, for example - are about a hundred times larger than the red blood cell, or about 100 microns in diameter (0.0001 metre). The border between nano and micro is the border between the new and the old in the science of small things. Nanotechnology - ‘engineering at a very small scale’ (1 nanometre=0.000000001 metre). Nanostructures-objects made of small numbers of atoms and molecules are one of the greenest pastures in modern science.
My research is about nanotechnology and nanostructures. Its exploits technologies that make the smallest things for the various ends: to fabricate the components of computer chips, to control and detect the behaviour of molecules, to manipulate cells. Since each of us is a nation of cells, and our cells are cities of nanostructures, nanoscience and nanostructures could be very useful in medicine.
The ability to build very small things while venturing from macro to micro, to the nano-world offers opportunities for new technologies - technologies so radically outside our experience that we may not even recognize them when they first appear.
This presents vast potential to generate ground-breaking discoveries which could lead to improved health and quality of life. The integration of nanotechnology with medicine opens up a world of enormous possibilities, the surface of which is just being scratched. From interactive diagnostic tools to the formation of molecular systems that are strikingly similar to living systems providing the basis for the regeneration and lightweight portable technologies with X-ray capabilities, the weaving of ‘Nano’ into everyday materials opens up a world of opportunities.
If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
If there was one thing to be changed I think it should be moving away from an emphasis on 'fixing the women' to 'fixing the system', as expressed by the American scholar Londa Schiebinger. There is a general consensus that the existing system is far from perfect and needs modernising, and I believe that we, women in science, would very much like to contribute to this modernisation process. Although, it is encouraging to see the high level of social mobilisation to redress this state of affairs, it is discouraging to have to deal with the enduring lack of gender equality conditions in a social institution, such as science, which by nature should be grounded on the recognition of one’s merit, competences and creativity, regardless of any other personal feature or orientation. This lack of gender equality clashes so much with the traditional view of science as a gender-neutral institution that it is still denied or, more often, underrated in its scale and consequences, both for women and for science itself.
What would be your top recommendation to a PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?
Believe in yourself and go for it!
Pola will address listeners at this summer’s London Soapbox Science event on leading nanotechnology research in the School of Chemical Engineering.
On the 29th of June 2014, 12-3pm, London’s Southbank will be transformed into a hub of scientific learning and discussion, as some of the UK’s leading female scientists take to their soapboxes to showcase science to the general public.
Soapbox Science aims to help eliminate gender inequality in science by raising the profile, and challenging the public’s view, of women and science.