So sad to leave the event, but had a fantastic time - thanks for all the great questions!
Favourite Thing: I really love discovering things about the world around me, so working in chemistry is a great job for me. I like to do experiments and measurements to try to figure out how extremely small particles called nanoparticles work. To do that, I get to use a lot of pretty exciting equipment, like microscopes that use electrons to make images and machines that use X-rays to locate atoms. I also get to travel to large facilities called synchrotrons to do detailed experiments on some of my nanoparticles. All of these experiments help me to understand how these particles work in lots of areas, like in batteries and electronics and even biology!
I went to school at the Presentation Secondary School in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary in Ireland. Then I moved to Dublin, where I completed a degree in Chemistry at Trinity College Dublin. I stayed at Trinity College to do a PhD in Chemistry, before moving to California in 2007.
B.A. (Mod.) Chemistry, Ph.D. Chemistry
I worked as a researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara from 2007 to 2009, then as a lecturer in Materials Research at the University of Kent in Canterbury. I also worked in a hotel kitchen during college summers and was the singer in an Irish band in California!
Since January 2013, I work as a Lecturer in Physical Chemistry at the University of Glasgow.
University of Glasgow
Me and my work
I’m a lecturer in Physical Chemistry and my research looks at the chemistry and physics of small materials.
I teach physical chemistry at the University of Glasgow, where I also have a research group. My group works on nanoparticles and materials that contain nanoparticles. To give you an idea of the sizes we’re talking about, a nanometer is one billionth of a meter – or around 10 atoms wide! The reason that we are so interested in these very small particles is because when you break materials down to such very small sizes, sometimes they have unexpected properties. For example, you might see jewelery, like a necklace, made of gold and you can see that it is shiny, bright and yellow-ish in colour. Now imagine if you could break that necklace up into very tiny pieces, only several atoms across. What happens when you have gold particles that are so small that we can call them nanoparticles is that they take on a new color – they actually appear red in color. They take on these new optical properties and, depending on their size and shape, they can behave differently. If we want to make gold nanoparticles in a lab though, we don’t have to ruin our favorite jewelery. Instead, we can produce these kinds of particles using solution chemistry. This is the kind of work that my students and I do. We are trying to find new ways to make all kinds of nanoparticles – from particles that are magnetic and can be used in medicine for the diagnosis and treatment of diseases to particles that can be used in batteries to charge and discharge your mobile phone. At the moment, we are using microwaves to try to make nanoparticles. We want to be able to control the shape and the size of our particles, so we work hard at finding the best conditions for our experiments. To find out if we have been successful, we use lots of methods to characterise our particles. One way we do this is to use X-rays to see how the atoms are arranged in our particles and helps us to identify what kind of material we have made. We can also use electron microscopes, which have very high resolution, and allow us to take images of individual nanoparticles, so we can check what size and shape our particles are. Having all of this information allows so to begin to understand why our materials behave in the way they do.
My Typical Day
No two days are ever the same!
My work has lots of different aspects to it. On some days, I am lecturing to students who are studying as undergraduates at the university for their degrees in Chemistry. One of the courses I teach is thermodynamics, which is the study of energy changes that can occur during some chemical or physical transformation. I also get to teach in the undergraduate laboratory, where our students carry out their own experiments, take careful measurements with different pieces of scientific equipment and explain their results in reports.
Another part of my work is running my research group. Our research is on making and studying nanoparticles, so my lab in Glasgow has lots of equipment that we can use for synthesis. For example, we use specialised glassware that can keep air and moisture away from our reactions since some of the reactions we do are sensitive to oxidation by moisture or air (oxidation is loss of electrons and this can affect what kind of material we end up with). We also use furnaces, which can heat up materials as high as 1000 degrees – sometimes we need to do this to make our reactions work. We also use microwave reactors – the same idea as your microwave at home, except it is specially designed for chemical reactions to give us more control over pressures and temperatures. So, sometimes during my day, I might be in the laboratory making some materials or speaking to my students about some interesting results they might have. That is really one of the best parts of my work – when we really have to figure out what is happening in a particular reaction or trying to work out what our results truly mean. When all the pieces fit together, it is a great feeling.
I also get to travel a lot with my work. For example, last weekend I was at the ISIS Neutron and Muon facility, close to Oxford. I was there to carry out some experiments on some nanoparticles my student and I made in our lab. ISIS is a very exciting place to be – it is where a lot of experiments are done by scientists who want to study their materials on an atomic level. We can do this at ISIS because it produces beams of neutrons and muons that can tell you a lot about where atoms are in your sample and what they are doing. Here is an example of one of the experiments my group have done:
What I'd do with the money
If I won, I would like to use the money to develop a materials outreach demonstration that I could take to schools and show students.
I would like to make a materials chemistry demonstration kit, made up of magnetic nanoparticles and superconductors, which I could easily take out to schools and show people. I make magnetic nanoparticles in my lab, but I could make up a series of magnetic fluids contained in plastic tubes, so people can pick them up and use external magnets to move the fluids around, like this:
This is an example of a magnetic fluid I made a few years ago which we could manipulate with an external magnet
I would also make up a series of pellets made up of superconducting material. Superconducting materials such as YBCO undergo a transition at low temperatures where they completely repel an external magnetic field. We can make this material in our lab and hover it over a track of magnets like this:
This is an example of a ‘superconducting car’, which was made by some teachers who worked in a lab I used to work in when I lived in the US. I would like to make similar material as part of a Materials Science outreach demonstration for schools
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Enthusiastic, curious, friendly
Who is your favourite singer or band?
My favourite band is probably the Beatles. Right now, I’m listening to Fleet Foxes.
What's your favourite food?
I like Japanese food a lot – anything with noodles and chillies
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Last summer, my boyfriend and I traveled to California to do some experiments (he is a chemist too). Afterwards, we took a holiday in Yosemite National Park. We drove there in a Mustang convertible, through forests of giant Redwood trees. Then, when we arrived, we got to cycle through the valley and swim in the Merced river, before watching the sky fill up in the nighttime with more stars than we had ever seen!
What did you want to be after you left school?
I wanted to be a teacher.
Were you ever in trouble in at school?
Not really, no.
What was your favourite subject at school?
Chemistry! Though I really liked music too. I still do and sing in the university choir.
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
I hope my best thing is yet to happen! But one of the best experiences I’ve had so far as a scientist was working as a researcher in Santa Barbara in California. I got to do a lot of very exciting experiments and make many great friends.
What or who inspired you to become a scientist?
I really enjoyed doing experiments during chemistry class in school and I was very lucky to have a great teacher.
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
I might be a chef – I really enjoy cooking.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
I’ll have to get back to you on this one!
Tell us a joke.
I’d love to tell you a chemistry joke, but all the best ones Argon…
Here is an image which contains several examples of the kinds of nanoparticles I make:
(A) is an electron microscope image of some nanoparticles which we are studying for use in lithium ion batteries (the kinds of battery which power your mobile phone)
(B) is an example of MRI – Magnetic Resonance Imaging. This kind of imaging technique is used to image cancer tumors in the body. These images show how the image resolution can be improved by using magnetic fluids made up of nanoparticles.
(C) shows a confocal image of some quantum dot nanoparticles inside a cell. A confocal microscope is one which can image fluorescent materials and a quantum dot is a very small nanoparticle which can emit light of a specific wavelength, depending on its size.
(D) shows another confocal image, this time of magnetic nanoparticles which have been labelled with a fluorescent dye so we can image cells.
Here is a picture of me working at the Diamond Light Source synchrotron. Here, I was doing some experiments to see how the properties of atoms change when they are being used inside a battery. This experiment helped my collaborators and I discover what atoms were doing all the work inside our battery to make charging and discharging happen:
Finally, here is a picture of me outside the lab I used to work at in Santa Barbara, California. This is my student, Jenni, who worked with me for a few weeks during the summer to make some nanowires. As part of the project, we built a cardboard boat on the beach (our lab is the building right behind us!). Then we had to sail it as far as we could. If you want to read more about our project together, here is a link to Jenni’s webpage: http://education.cnsi.ucsb.edu/pages/ar/projects/projects2008/sites/jenny/index.htm