Collaborating On A (Very) Small Scale

 

 

Casual conversations over conference tea-cups, chance meetings in stairwells, idle flicking through a journal – these may not sound like the stuff of which scientific endeavours are made, but they can provide a surprisingly significant role in the development of research projects and collaborations that span an organisation, a city, sometimes even the world. Such serendipitous encounters form the basis of scientific legend – Edward Jenner’s chat with an informative milkmaid led to the smallpox vaccine; a chance meeting between DuPont scientists and the Manhattan Project team gave the world Teflon. These encounters also provide underpinning support for encouraging researchers to look outside their own labs and their own disciplines. The MacDiarmid Institute intentionally plays a very deliberate and proactive role in fostering cross-disciplinary work and organised collaborations. Newsletters, conferences, seminars and the like all provide a means for researchers scattered throughout New Zealand to gain an awareness of what their colleagues are up to, who might have useful equipment, and how they can work together directly or via shared students and postdoctoral fellows. It’s a strategy that is paying off as more and more research projects gain a broader outlook and stronger connections. MacDiarmid Principal Investigator (PI) Dr Alison Downard is Professor of Chemistry at Canterbury University. She notes that the chemistry and physics people are in the same building on campus “so you see them every day”, but that they would very rarely mix in any professional context. The networking encouraged by the MacDiarmid Institute has helped changed that, allowing researchers to connect with each other and learn about each other’s expertise. “It works best from the bottom up,”says Downard. In her case, collaborating with physics professor Dr Simon Brown arose, not so much through the university, but via contacts in MacDiarmid, where Brown is also a Principal Investigator and Deputy Director. The two are working together as part of the molecular electronics initiative, in the very early stages of trying to understand how specific molecules can be attached to particular surfaces in a stable fashion. The aim is to build molecules with useful functionality that can then be assembled into tiny analogues of much larger-scale electronic components, such as transistors or switches. Until now, the group has been looking at very simple model compounds, concentrating on the molecule-to-surface attachment side of things to characterise that area of understanding as an initial start. This involves utilising the properties of strong covalent bonding from an attack of aryl radicals at a carbon surface. Downard explains that using the simple approach is a quicker, more cost-effective means of testing basic principles. “A synthetic chemist could take weeks to make something complicated for us to use, and probably wouldn’t be very happy if we used it all up on one shot,”she says. The simple derivatives currently in use can be made quickly and locally. That said, the group has recently begun to use “more interesting molecules” supplied by Chemistry Department colleague and new MacDiarmid PI Associate Professor Paul Kruger. His transition metal complex includes four iron ions, which makes them “nice and big” and thus good candidates for imaging on the Physics Department’s ultra-high vacuum scanning tunnelling microscope, itself funded by the MacDiarmid Institute. You say “to-may-toe”, I say “to- mah –toe” As part of this project, the Chemistry and Physics Departments now share a MacDiarmid Institute funded postdoctoral fellow Haifeng Ma. The cross-disciplinary collaboration has proven useful in helping each discipline gain a better understand of the approaches of the other. “In this project we use different vocabulary when talking about exactly the same thing,” notes Downard, hastening to add that“we do understand what the physicists are saying”. Thus when referring to the layered graphite surfaces, the chemists will talk about “basal planes” and “edges”, whereas the physicists will refer to “the terrace” and “steps”. Of greater significance are the differing experimental approaches and backgrounds which the different disciplines bring to the effort. “Physicists, especially in this area, are more used to looking at systems that are very well organised and clean,”says Downard. She attributes this to the traditional focus on fundamental mechanisms and differences in how physicists go about preparing materials for investigation. Chemists, on the other hand, tend to work in an environment that is more closely connected to applied real-world conditions, with all the potential for chaos that that can imply. “Our systems are very messy in comparison.” Another MacDiarmid Institute researcher who has also broadened her vocabulary through collaboration is Otago chemistry professor and MacDiarmid Institute PI Dr Sally Brooker“Bridging the disciplines is a big challenge, as each area has its own language, but it’s an exciting one and we are all relishing it,”says Brooker. Beaker to Surfaces Brooker’s research group is currently working in a different area of the broad MacDiarmid Institute research theme on Molecular Materials, investigating how single molecule magnets, or molecules which are spin-crossover active, can be switched between two or more electronic states. Such properties can be used as the basis of a form of digital memory, which points the way to, for example, development of nano-devices for information storage and processing – in effect nano-computers. The “beaker to surfaces” project began in May, so is still in its very early stages of development with plenty of room for further collaboration in the areas of surface attachment as well as characterisation of the molecules on the surface once attached. The project draws on a range of people across a number of institutions, such as the variable temperature: magnetic data collection facilities operated by Industrial Research Ltd in Lower Hutt and the team there headed by Dr Jeff Tallon, yet another MacDiarmid Institute PI. Having access to such equipment and expertise has been “totally transformational” according to Brooker, citing the many joint publications this research has encouraged. She also acknowledges the importance of other MacDiarmid Institute supported equipment, such as the Raman microscope facilities at Otago led by Dr Keith Gordon, Professor of Chemistry; and New Zealand’s first low-temperature Mössbauer facility in Otago, operated under the guidance of Dr Guy Jameson. Brooker comments that the MacDiarmid Institute has helped dismantle institutional barriers, making it far easier to connect in a meaningful way with physical and engineering scientists. Communications technology has also helped. The advent of email and Skype means it’s now far less important whether your colleagues are in the lab next door or halfway around the world. Tallon points out that he maintains collaborations with people in Otago, Cambridge, Fribourg, Milan and New York without impediment. It can be a bit of a stretch at times, he admits, as greater interactivity can place increased demands on researchers. “My first twenty years in research allowed uninterrupted attention all day long, every day. That is a rare luxury nowadays and our work is diminished by this. At the same time, our activities are much more multidimensional, and we can do so much more, because of collaboration. Hopefully the whole is much more than the mere sum of the parts.” When Working Together Doesn’t Work Out In some cases, collaborative relationships can be helpful in identifying when not to work together. When Professor Richard Blaikie was approached for a project on the basis of his specialist interest in atomic force microscopy, he ended up passing the research on. As it happened, he knew that the Physics Department at the University of Canterbury had more suitable instrumentation – the ultra-high vacuum scanning tunnelling microscope (UHV-STM) – than that available in his own Department of Engineering, and Blaikie suggested colleague Professor Simon Brown could be a more useful addition to the collaboration at this stage. Now based at Otago as the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Enterprise), Blaikie continues to take an interest in the area, acting as “a sounding board for these types of molecules”. Although he wasn’t able to help out during these early days of research, it may well be that he can continue to contribute to analysing the possibilities for further research, providing contacts and feeding suggestions into experimental design. He sees bringing a broader range of experience and knowledge into a project as a valuable means of identifying which paths may be fruitful. Although Blaikie admits that serendipity does have a role to play in scientific work, there’s also a strong role for forward planning. “There’s nothing wrong with the ‘suck it and see’ approach,”says Blaikie, “but if you can identify what you’re after, talk to colleagues, find out what equipment you need, you can save a lot of time.” More than just sharing equipment Jeff Tallon, based at IRL, has provided a good deal of research skills, support and specialist machinery, such as the SQUID magnetometer, for MacDiarmid Institute projects. That work has expanded from characterising the magnetic properties of materials to looking at structural and spectroscopic characterisation. This, in turn, says Tallon, helped attract AI Geoff Jameson from Massey University, as well as other researchers from Australia. “The nice thing is that as the programme has grown, so our facilities have had to be developed in order to achieve the requisite sensitivity. In the end, we are all better off and those improvements are now being applied to other research programmes. There is a symbiosis here that is distinctive in the research field. Benefits never just accrue in one direction.” Tallon notes that when looking back on his successful collaborations, it has been the human element which has driven the success of the alliance. “Somehow the passion that I have for science is enlarged by the relationship, and vice versa. Science is very much driven by passion and less by work plans.” Or, as Alison Downard puts it: “The people part of science is a big part of the fun of working in science.”