Jadranka Travas-Sejdic – Stretching new frontiers
Story by Kate Hannah
Jadranka Travas-Sejdic, face lit up, is explaining her work: “basically it comes down to opening new frontiers in developing simple electronic devices that will make our lives simpler and safer—exploiting enormous potentials of organic (polymer) electronics.” She is not only a Principal Investigator with the MacDiarmid Institute, but also Director of the Polymer Electronics Research Centre (PERC) at the University of Auckland, an University cross-disciplinary centre bringing together chemistry, biology, medicine, and engineering researchers. Jadranka’s work within the MacDiarmid Institute—where she’s been a principal investigator since 2006—spans functional nanostructures, bioelectronics, and functional electronic (bio)materials. Her active collaborations across The MacDiarmid Institute and within PERC provide a broader scope and an increased depth to her work, and significantly catalyse the process of her research. Jadranka has been at the University of Auckland—with a few years gap post-PhD to work in industry—since doing her PhD with Associate Professor Allan Easteal (completed in 1999). She’s been involved with the MacDiarmid Institute since late 2006 when she, then a senior lecturer, was invited to join the Institute—one of the first University of Auckland-based PIs: “it was a real privilege to be invited to join.” Jadranka credits Paul Callaghan for creating the sense of community and excitement that drew her towards the excellent research being undertaken around the country by MacDiarmid PIs—“the atmosphere really helped me flourish as a scientist, as an academic.” She has developed over the years new and exciting collaborations with a number of MacDiarmid PIs, an example being a long-standing collaboration with David Williams and the more recent collaboration with Justin Hodgkiss (Victoria University) which has seen their research groups working together on ‘developing highly sensitive hormone sensors’. She says that New Zealand came a long way in developing internationally competitive science and technologies. “With the establishment of the Centres of Research Excellence we are now able to access equipment, facilities, and people in other institutions in a way that we couldn’t before, which is important for a small country with limited resources.” There’s a sense that this openness, this ability to develop networks of friends and colleagues, has supported Jadranka in her career—in the eight years since she joined MacDiarmid, she’s transitioned from a senior lecturer to being made a professor. “I’ve been hugely supported in developing professionally as a scientist in knowing that I’m part of a group of excellence—it sets a standard to which you stretch yourself to reach.” A critical part of that professional development that’s seen Jadranka appointed a professor of Chemistry at the University of Auckland (contributing to the 37% of senior academic women in that discipline at Auckland) is the way in which she has been sustained by what she describes as a transformative culture developed by the Centres of Research Excellence and exemplified for her by the MacDiarmid Institute. “This, from the start, has encouraged development—that everyone is equal and contributes equally.” This has created a culture that is truly collaborative—‘when you feel part of it, you want to contribute’. What Jadranka contributes is what lights up her face while she talks—the ‘great promise’ that she sees in the interface between polymer electronics and biology—a new frontier for ‘plastic electronics’ beyond flexible displays and plastic solar cells. “One of the next big things that will change a way of our everyday lives will be wearable electronic devices, for example textiles that integrate devices and sensors for health monitoring.” Her research is directed in such a way that the work she does has practical applications, describing the need for developing further plasticity in these polymeric conducting materials—with a goal to mimic, measure, and enhance the functions of human skin or tissues. “Conducting polymers are one of the best materials to attempt that with, but there are limitations to their functionality that need to be overcome—I’m interested in making stuff that’s stretchable, adhesive, processable.” This leads to a focus on the development of materials with specific functionality, creating smart materials for interfacing with biological cells or sticky sensors that can be adhered to skin. Biosensing is an example of the application of this kind of chemical technology, where Jadranka’s team and their collaborators have been developing biosensors that can give a direct electronic signal to the presence of biologically relevant molecules—a specific gene of interest identifying a disease or identification of bodily fluids in forensic investigations. It’s wonderful to see Jadranka talk about the potential of this work—she’s dedicated to the principle that while the science itself is complicated and sometimes seems difficult to explain or put into context, that “it is exciting to see science being applicable… In regard to biosensing, we wish to develop a simple-to-use portable sensing technology—that can be used in the field, by a farmer checking livestock health or a forensic officer examining a crime scene.” Simple, inexpensive, and portable applications of polymer electronics—that’s the science that motivates Jadranka Travas-Sedic.