MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology
Area/discipline of scienceElectrochemistry and surface chemistry
- BSc(Hons) (Otago, 1979), PhD (Otago, 1984)
I work in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Canterbury. My job involves teaching undergraduates in lectures and laboratory classes, supervising postgraduate research students and doing research myself (actually my students do the lab work, it’s my job to identify important and interesting research problems, obtain grant funding to pay for research, help my students understand and plan their research work and communicate about our work in publications, talks at conferences and so on). Unfortunately there’s a lot of administration involved in university work as well. It’s hard to describe a typical work day for me and that’s one of the great things about the job: so much variety as well learning interesting new things every day.
Electrochemistry is the common theme that runs through our research. In electrochemistry, electrical energy is used to force oxidation and reduction (redox) reactions to occur at electrodes. We have various electrochemical projects underway but we specialize in reactions that generate products that graft onto the surface of the electrode. A major challenge in materials chemistry is that a material, for example steel, might have many excellent properties (high strength, ductility, relatively low cost, ready availability and so on) but the surface might be a problem (rusting, for example). We can prevent rusting by painting the surface but painting is not a good solution for many applications or for other materials (for a start, it might chip or peel off). Our methods result in a very strong bond between the surface and the coating, and the coating can be extremely thin (nanoscale) and have a whole range of properties or functions. I’m really interested in how such coatings form and the properties they have; the big goal is ultimately to be able to ‘dial up’ a coating with just the properties required for a particular application (a medical implant that won’t grow a biofilm, a filter that won’t clog, a self-cleaning fabric and so on).
Chemistry is such a diverse science, connecting with biology, physics, mathematics and materials science, there’s something for all scientific tastes! At the research level, it’s so much fun, having a big puzzle and working together to slowly fill in the pieces and build up the big picture. The constant learning and discovery make science a great career, and I really enjoy the sense of working collectively, not just with my research team, but with researchers tackling similar problems all around the world. The downside is that as a researcher, it’s hard to take a break because science moves so quickly, and work can eat up a lot of our leisure time too. Becoming highly specialized and then being made redundant is a big risk these days, although university scientists haven’t been too badly affected so far (fingers crossed). Working in the university means interacting with lots of undergraduate students who are nearly always interesting and fun to get to know, while working alongside our talented research students, the scientists of tomorrow, is the best part of the job.