Chance Only Favours the Prepared Mind

Looking back at eleven years of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology


“When you’ve got the equipment, the expertise, and the space to think about problems in a different way, the research almost tells its own story.”


Popular culture delights in the concept of scientific serendipity: Alexander Fleming discovering penicillin after forgetting to disinfect cultures of bacteria before going away on holiday, only to return to find them contaminated with Penicillium moulds, which killed the bacteria; or the discovery of the principles of electromagnetism by Hans Christian Ørsted, who noticed a compass needle deflecting from magnetic north each time the electric current from a battery he was planning on using in a demonstration was turned on and off.  What this narrative of accident fails to mention is a critical aspect of the definition of serendipity, meaning a state when “by accidents and sagacity” things not sought are discovered. It is this confluence of accident and wisdom, or sagacity, which best represents scientific serendipity. Fleming and Ørsted were scientists who recognised the processes they’d stumbled upon were novel, and important. A similar confluence of the right background knowledge, the right kind of inquisitive minds, the best creative thinking, the right tools, and, perhaps most importantly, good timing, were critical factors in the establishment and development of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology. Keith Gordon (Otago), Alison Downard (Canterbury), Simon Hall (Massey), Jim Metson (Auckland), Andreas Markwitz (GNS Science), and Jeff Tallon (Callaghan Innovation) are current Principal Investigators who have been involved with the MacDiarmid Institute since before its inception, and have been reflecting on how it has evolved, and what the future holds

Keith Gordon Alison Downard Simon Hall Jim Metson Andreas Markwitz Jeff Talon

Timing is everything; a critical confluence of factors was at play in 2000 and 2001 as the Institute’s formation was planned. Alan MacDiarmid had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2000 for his ground-breaking work on the discovery and development of electronically conductive polymers.  Several groups of researchers at different universities around New Zealand had begun pulling together official or non-official research groups focusing on the nexus between advanced materials and the new area of nanotechnology. The New Zealand Government had introduced a new funding mechanism, Centres of Research Excellence, designed to foster research that was collaborative, strategic and with potential for knowledge transfer, with a critical focus on inter-institutional networks, contribution to national development and the impact of research.  Paul Callaghan had left Massey, where he’d been since his return from a postdoctoral position in 1974, for a newly created professorship – as the Alan MacDiarmid Professor of Physical Sciences at Victoria.  Serendipity was at work – the myriad groups around the country saw a clear opportunity for a CoRE in the field of materials and nanotechnology. Keith says “we [materials science people] were gathered together by Paul. He didn’t worry about the minutiae,” instead focusing on the opportunity or potential.  With a desire “not to focus on the problems,” Simon sees Paul’s personality as intrinsic to the initial success of the enterprise: “I don’t think any other person could have brought the group together.”  In many ways this is reflected in Jim’s recollection of people being somewhat surprised when Victoria emerged as the host (or co-host) university, commenting on the “force of charisma and personality”, and the weight of history – as the alma mater of MacDiarmid and Callaghan.


Talking to these founding Principal Investigators, you very quickly realise a couple of things. Firstly, back in 2000 and 2001 when the idea for a collaborative bid first emerged, they weren’t very old. Paul Callaghan, Jeff, Jim and Alison were the senior scientists – most of the others were early to mid-career. This created an exciting precedent in which involvement with the Institute was less about illustrious CVs and more about potential. Paul pulled together a team of people who were excited by the science, willing to collaborate, and willing to try doing things in a new way. The focus on developing the potential of young scientists is one aspect of the Institute that those who were there at the beginning are most proud. The whole CoRE bid process was experimental, and so was the way in which the team was brought together.  “Paul tried to energise the country to do something different.” People noted that they were given chances – and that’s been the case ever since, with young science leaders – including those in science communication and commercialisation – encouraged to take up senior positions, to develop skills and to be involved in collaborations that might never have happened without the establishment of the Institute.


At the time, people were often actively discouraged from collaborating with colleagues from other universities or research organisations. Paul and the rest of the team made a significant change to the research landscape by bringing together a diverse, inter-institutional team, and ensuring that funding was assigned in ways that enable collegiality and collaboration. These approaches “circumvented competition,” according to Keith, in a way that radically changed the mind-set of those involved with the Institute.  In bringing together this “bunch of like-minded people,” Paul took the science back to a New Zealand-wide consideration, creating a workable community structure. The ability to access others’ capabilities has had huge impact on PIs. Often these capabilities are described in terms of students or equipment – the ability to conduct part of an experiment using equipment at another institution – but ultimately, as Andreas says “we’ve had more contact with each other, and more collaboration has resulted.” Jim cites Ben Ruck and Steve Durbin as having “reintroduced me to physics,” suggesting that, in return, he may have “introduced them to synchrotrons.” In fostering this community approach, the Institute has allowed research collaborations, that would otherwise not have been possible, to take place. Many of the individual researchers were relatively isolated; providing them with access to collaborators, sounding boards, and equipment has been of outstanding benefit to them and their science. Beyond the impact of access to an immediate group of colleagues and potential collaborators, the effect of the Institute’s bi-annual conference – Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology (AMN) has been immense, providing a crucial opportunity for New Zealand scientists, particularly emerging scientists, to create and develop networks. There’s a sense that the success of the AMN conferences is the Institute showing is increasing value to New Zealand – a large scale conference, with some of the best materials scientists in the world, capability-building for New Zealand, and with significant outreach and media activities, creating a very real buzz around advanced materials and nanotechnology while the conference is on. It’s been important since the outset to “bring young people into the conversation.” The diverse skill base acquired by PhD students, with access to expertise and equipment across the advanced materials and nanotechnology spectrum, would not have been achievable in a regular university department.  Alison pointed out the extensive contribution to the education of research students and postdoctoral fellows as something she views as a unique contribution, citing also the variety of training opportunities, workshops, networks, and outreach opportunities the students are able to access. MESA, the MacDiarmid Institute Emerging Scientists Association, plays a critical role in supporting and developing this aspect of the Institute’s contribution. Simon wonders if it has been the inclusion of emerging scientists and the support of students and postdoctoral fellows that can be seen to be one of the best aspects of the Institute. Jim notes the revival of the chemical and physical sciences in New Zealand, suggesting that we have made New Zealand an attractive place to live and work for young chemists and physicists. Jeff is proud of the role we have had in thinking and talking about the big questions that science can try to answer, and views role the emerging scientists have played in starting those kinds of conversations as critical. However, the focus on young people is not just about students: the youth of the people involved at the beginning has created a model in which there is a wide base of PIs, distributed throughout the country. with processes set up in such a way that there has always been room for new PIs and AIs to join the Institute. People involved feel “rewarded and appreciated, and that their work has value”, and Jeff notes that “people who’ve been around for a long time have a responsibility for the next generation – to encourage them into research careers.” Simon suggests this approach is crucial to the our success – he was a senior lecturer in 2000 when first approached to be part of the conversation: “we weren’t all senior Profs.” It seems that those who were more senior were very good at recognising who had the potential in what was then an emerging area of science.  Jeff speaks of the satisfaction he feels seeing people he knew as emerging researchers now in senior positions, running large projects and teams. Providing the foundation to these achievements, is the investment in equipment made possible through the establishment of the CoRE. As Andreas says, this might seem “low-level” and unimportant, but prior to investment through the Institute in large pieces of kit, scientists were often prevented from using equipment owned by other institutions because the costs of using that equipment were prohibitive. Access to technology at other places has enabled all sorts of research – particularly student research – that in the past would have been actively discouraged due to the expense of using the equipment. Being able to source capital equipment has been a “game-changer” for many of the PIs, Jeff suggests.  As Jim notes, research infrastructure is critical to science, and the Institute needs to be able to continue to acquire essential equipment in order to be at the forefront of materials and nanotechnology research. A side-line benefit of this investment has been the face-to-face interactions between PIs, postdoctoral fellows and students that this created, as people travelled to institutions to use the equipment or be trained in its use. Alison recalls that the investment in equipment came at a critical time for her; she’d been collaborating with colleagues at Canterbury in developing a micro fabrication lab and was then able to develop a nanotechnology fabrication lab. The equipment access allowed her to expand her research further into surface engineering.  Keith is adamant that the use of resources in a collaborative way allowed for some “kick-ass science”, with a key aspect being the ability to tap into a network of equipment and people who know how to use it. He cites the example of Richard Tilley, whose expertise in electron microscopy has been hugely useful, in helping him interpret data. Science communication and community outreach are important aspects of the role the Institute has taken in the New Zealand science community. Paul Callaghan “had a higher vision that related to keeping the public informed about, and excited by, the science we do”, and Jim credits the sense of critical mass created by the formation a national group of scientists committed to science communication, working at the coalface. “There’s ability for people like Kathryn McGrath and Shaun Hendy to be much more active in this space, thanks to the Institute.” Andreas points out that this has been hugely beneficial, particularly in the industry-facing work that he does. “Industry in New Zealand is now seeing how the science is fit for application.” Jeff agrees: “it’s my experience that great scientists are also good business people – and the conversations we’re now having with business support that.” However, he’s convinced that the future of the Institute will depend on turning what’s grown organically, from the sum of individual projects to a collaborative entity, into a centre that brings together the weight of its expertise to answer critical questions for society and industry. Alison’s aware that there is still work to do at a grass-roots level, especially increasing the public’s general knowledge about science. Keith is adamant that the excitement of science is compelling when properly expressed, stating that the success of the Institute in science communication has been the result of the collegiality. “When you’ve got the equipment, the expertise, and the space to think about problems in a different way, the research almost tells its own story.”


Keith describes it beautifully. He states that our society is reliant on petro-chemicals not because they’re intrinsically the best materials for the job, but because, at this point in time, they are available and cheap. While the science conducted within the Institute might not ‘save the world’, it will answer a lot of the critical problems we face  by developing materials that will allow us to continue to have the quality of life we have become accustomed to with a far lesser impact on the planet. Keith sees the Institute’s future as the developer of enabling technologies built upon excellent fundamental science, citing the work that Richard Blaikie’s done in developing optical systems with lithographically printed complex circuitry, Mark Allen’s solar sensing materials, and David Williams’ electric “paper”.  Thus, for him, the next big question for the Institute is the management of the commercialisation process and the identification of ideas that might have the capacity for developing these essential enabling technologies. Alison agrees – the exciting challenge they face in the next ten years is in supporting more forays into commercialisation. She sees these as inevitable results of the ever-increasing discovery of novel approaches that come about through the collaborative. “New and exciting things will occur in the basic research areas,” and there’ll be an expansion of people seeking to find commercial applications, which, she mentions, “will always be tricky as you need a lot of ideas tested and taken to the marketplace.” Alison sees a real need for more opportunities for commercialisation within a context of the inherent risk of this venture, while continuing to ensure that the space for basic fundamental research remains open. These increased opportunities for commercialisation will, inevitably, lead to better recognition of the contribution of the Institute – and through it, the universities, CRIs, and science itself – to New Zealand. Pondering what works in achieving recognition, the founding PIs are well aware that communicating the value of research to the public and the community is embedded within the heart of the Institute. Is there a role for collaborative investigator-led groups like the Institute being involved in curriculum development? Participation in events and competitions like The Best 100, which asks primary school teachers to submit their best (tried and tested) experiments, or the Young Science Orators awards, which is a partnership with Rotary celebrating the skills of secondary and tertiary students with a passion for science and science communication, are aspects of this future role – assisting in shaping the notion of science as intrinsic and important to New Zealand’s future. Simon views this 11-year point, looking forward to the next 10 years, as a useful thing – thinking about the rebid ensures “we revisit what our mission and goals are.” The discipline of putting down in writing what the next years will look like for a unique entity – a distributed institute with a critical focus on science, commercialisation, and communication. He’s excited by the chance to think critically about which research currently being undertaken or planned has the potential for genuine transformative commercial applications, such as the organic light-emitting diodes developed by Keith Gordon and his team. “We need to be thinking of all the other things we’ve played with, and what might be able to be done with them in the future.” While he’s excited about future thinking, he’s also keen to ensure that “we recognise we’re not the only ones who’ve done it.” At the moment he’s directing students back to pre-1965 references in one particular area as he’s convinced that this field’s been considered ‘done’ and thus no-one’s bothered to re-look at what the past might bring to bear on the future. This sense of the best of the old and new is at the centre of Jim’s vision for the future of the MacDiarmid Institute too. He’s keen to harness a tolerance of risk into the future noting that the research work done here models to an inherently risk-averse government the benefits of broadening their focus from the biological/biomedical sciences to the transformative potentialities of enabling technologies offered by advanced materials and nanotechnology. Or as David Williams calls it, “stuff.”  Jeff agrees – there’s a need to be able to focus on the science, while the processes of commercialisation are managed by the MacDiarmid Institute’s seven partner organisations – such as Callaghan Innovation. He’s keen to see the International Advisory Board, which he heads, lead the way in identifying the areas of focus for the Institute, as they always have, but with a renewed vision that identifies the areas of science to which the Institute can make a real difference. Jim sees the economic contribution made by “mobile, bright, young people” and the research centres and institutes they work within as small-to medium enterprises in their own right, and is eager for the Institute to continue to provide leadership in contributing to public understanding of what science does for New Zealand. Andreas, like Keith, is excited by the future potential for commercialisation that this next phase will bring about. Working closely with New Zealand companies, as he does at GNS, he’s keen to see more and more MacDiarmid Institute PhD students working in industry as a critical component of their studies, or as postdoctoral fellow positions embedded within companies. He’s delighted with the way in which the two commercialisation managers have worked for investigators, but thinks the time has come for increasing numbers of graduates with the research capabilities and the industry focus that will be transformative for New Zealand. “I think New Zealand industry is up for that.” Jeff’s adamant that the future for the Institute is intrinsically linked to New Zealand’s economic and social wellbeing, noting that “we’re not just here to make money to perpetuate ourselves.” He’s keen to shift the balance slightly from basic, fundamental, investigator-led research towards large groups looking at the big questions, with translations into applications for industry or society.  Like all the PIs I spoke with, Jeff didn’t mention his own research – he highlighted the work of others. Evidence, perhaps, of the collaboration and collegiality the Institute has fostered. That the MacDiarmid Institute has changed the way in which materials science is done in New Zealand is apparent. The challenge for this group of “prepared minds” as they look to the future is to continue to capitalise on that change for the benefit of the country that has funded it.