Bridging The Gap

Prof Juliet Gerard - Science Leader - The Materials/Biology Interface‘Big, brave ideas’ inspired by biology are helping New Zealand advance towards a science-based economy.  Professor Juliet Gerrard is leading the MacDiarmid Institute’s work on Functional Nanostructures. The Director of the Biomolecular Interaction Centre at Canterbury University, she says it provides a bridge between the physical sciences for which the Institute is known and biology on which our economy is based.  “The New Zealand economy is built on farming, agriculture and food. “But the MacDiarmid Institute has traditionally been grounded in the physical sciences. So now we are applying our tools, knowledge and expertise of the physical sciences, in which we really excel, to biological questions.”  Gerrard says winning six years of funding as a Centre of Research Excellence, allows the Institute to turn its attention to long-term integrated research projects in this area. “The beauty of getting the funding is now we can consider really big brave ideas. “Instead of thinking about one student at a time, we can think we’ve got six years and 20 people. What can we do with that? And by the end of six years we’ll be ready to do the applied stuff that might reap economic rewards.”  Biology can inspire researchers to examine processes which naturally occur in cells, and take them outside the cell to use in a completely different context, she says. “We can look at the way that biology assembles amazing nanostructures inside cells, then use that understanding to design our own materials.” One application relates to photovoltaics, used to generate electricity using solar cells. “One of the challenges there is persuading molecules to self-assemble. We can use our knowledge of proteins to design small molecules that will assemble in a really ordered way to make photovoltaics.”  Conversely, materials can be used to probe and influence biology. “We are looking at whether you can use a nanostructure to influence the way cells develop. So we are testing whether cells can sense the surface they are on, and if they respond to the mechanical features of the surface as well as the chemical features. “At this stage it’s a really fundamental project but has downstream applications for things like stem cell differentiation and cancer.”  Using the basic principles of biological assembly to make new materials is another focus. “Something that biology is really good at, but physical scientists are really bad at, is putting a pile of molecules together and having them self-assemble. “With biology it’s all been evolving for millions of years, so you can put all the different components in solution and they assemble themselves.”  biominerals to bonesOne research area on this theme, well underway, involves scientists trying to make artificial bone“We are looking at how biology takes a solution of calcium ions, and a little bit of protein and fat and turns it into bone. We can use that understanding to make useful materials.”  This approach of connecting biology and physical sciences bodes well for emerging entrepreneurial scientists, who play a big role in the MacDiarmid vision.  A huge part of the work across the area will be carried out in PhD and postdoctoral research, says Gerrard. “It’s less about the lead researcher’s ‘pet interest’ now, and more about a whole lot of people working together across disciplines to really make a difference. “That multidisciplinary team environment that is growing will be really good for students. To be a specialist in self-assembly is all very well, but to be successful you also need to be able to talk to the guys who want to use your work in a photovolatic cell.” Gerrard says collaboration among the academic community is the key to heading towards a science-based economy. “One of the challenges is to get scientists from different disciplines excited about the same thing. Now we’ve all known each other for 12 years through the MacDiarmid Institute, it means the relationships are in place to get that collaborative enthusiasm. “Because New Zealand is a small country, we are very much on the same team. There’s a kind of New Zealand Inc. feeling. I’m really excited to get going.”