Collaboration & competition in a small pool

Story by Vicki Hyde   NihanThe Lord of the Rings movies have made a lot of people want to come to New Zealand, and the MacDiarmid Institute’s PhD candidate Nihan Ayedemir confesses to being one of them. Stunning scenery aside, what really drew her to advanced polymer research at Auckland University’s Travas- Sjedic Group was an encounter with the MacDiarmid Institute’s PrincipaI Investigator Professor Jadranka Travas- Sejdic at a 2011 conference in Prague. Nihan was well aware of the University of Auckland professor’s work, having cited Travas-Sejdic’s papers in her Masters’ thesis, undertaken at Istanbul Technical University. The interest was mutual—Travas-Sejdic had seen Nihan’s poster at the conference and recognised the student’s potential, becoming her supervisor when Nihan travelled to New Zealand in 2012 as a MacDiarmid-supported PhD candidate. Since then, she has started to work with Travas-Sejdic and Professor David E Williams. In this time, Nihan has won awards for a whole batch of conference posters and, earlier this year, took the Spark Ideas Challenge Commercialisation Prize based on her PhD work on highly sensitive DNA sensors for detecting cancer. Nihan is keen to stay in New Zealand after her PhD research is completed. While she wants to remain within academia, working within the MacDiarmid Institute setting has made her appreciate the bridges that can be built between the research and corporate worlds. “I want to develop technology that will help people. Given the support of the MacDiarmid [Institute], and the commercial work possibilities, I can do that in New Zealand. It’s a perfectly good place to do it.” Nihan has been impressed by the high level of support for research within New Zealand institutions. In her lab she looks after a scanning ion conducting microscope, one of around only 20 in the world. The prototype here was built by a former PhD student, and Nihan has noticed that students tend to get better access to equipment and facilities earlier in their careers here. The nanofabrication and clean-room facilities found here, for example, are not so common in other universities around the world. Sometimes being small helps. “You can have 500 mediocre research universities or five high-tech research facilities.” She adds that if you have just a million dollars to go around, then having a smaller pool to share it helps a lot. Nihan sees New Zealand as being open to new ideas and thoughts: “If you want to do something to help people—something that is going to be useful—everyone here gets very excited and starts talking about how they can help. We may compete, but we also collaborate a lot.” MacDiarmid Institute contacts and networking give her access to a pool of facilities and people across the country—“that’s not very common overseas”. She’s also been involved with organising the workshops and symposia undertaken by MESA (MacDiarmid Emerging Scientists Association), which bring students, researchers and industry together. Other aspects of New Zealand’s relatively laid-back environment also appeal—although living in traffic-prone Auckland, Nihan spends just 15 minutes to get from home to lab. “You should see the traffic in Istanbul,” she laughs, adding that she’d typically spend four hours a day travelling there. As for missing the cosmopolitan nature of home, Nihan contends that New Zealand science is multi-cultural, like New Zealand itself. “You are at the end of the world, but the whole world is coming to you,” she says, referring to both the lab and the wider community. While New Zealanders may tend to feel far from the action globally, Nihan sees advantages in this, being a long way from the distractions of extreme economic crises and the spectre of increasing conflict. “If you are in Europe or the Middle East, or in between like me, you … never know if tomorrow will be peaceful or not. Here I live in peace; I study in peace. You can focus on your work – that’s good for a PhD student.”