Area/discipline of scienceBiomineralisation
- BSc Hons Chemistry First Class, University of Canterbury, 1991
- PhD, Australian National University, 1995
- PGDipCom Finance Distinction, University of Otago, 2004
Chemistry while being essential in all aspects of the world and therefore our lives can sometimes be hard to sell because you can’t see a molecule without using highly specialised equipment – and even then you are probably not actually “seeing” it but rather probing particular characteristics of the molecule. So how do you know the molecule is there and how can you show it to people and make them see how fascinating it is, either by itself or when it reacts with something else or when you have a collection of them? But then isn’t that just the point, that as a chemist you have the ability to make atoms and molecules do what you want them to do and you can investigate areas as diverse as biological enzymatic pathways, to the femtosecond processes controlling and defining the functionality of solar cells. That combined with being able to work on something that few others in the world do and gain new knowledge that literally opens up the possibility of changing the world is what made Kate become a Chemist.
Kate’s specific interests lie in trying to understand how collections of molecules behave. And how seemingly subtle changes to a molecule can make a huge difference with respect to how the collection behaves, while at other times massive molecular changes can make almost no difference at all. The types of systems she is interested in are biominerals and soft matter. Biominerals are the hard tissues that all plants and animals produce such as bones and teeth, while soft matter includes emulsions (think milk), polymers and liquid crystals (think TVs). Surprisingly all of these materials are defined by the weak interactions that hold together collections of molecules. Furthermore the three dimensional structure of some hard biominerals is the same as that found in fluid systems such as polymer or soap solutions. This seemingly overarching control that weak intermolecular interactions have for a broad range of systems and materials is what drives Kate in her research work.
Being a science academic however is much more than undertaking independent scientific research and working with dedicated and enthusiastic research students. It is also interacting on a daily basis with undergraduate students and working with them as they develop their ability to learn, enquire and drive ideas and processes, and being a part of the University and wider communities. Every day is different and may combine working on research, teaching, committee meetings, mentoring students and marking, and this level of diversity is one of the huge benefits of this career but also one of the big challenges, making it all work, being able to combine all of these different things into one day and still having the time to be one of the most creative people on the planet. Since self motivation and drive is crucial as a scientist learning to gain inspiration from the people around you is really important. Finding time to really think about something is sometimes also tough with the other demands that are part of the job, but the ultimate freedom you have to work on problems that you really want to know the answer to and that will contribute to our ever advancing world, travelling overseas once a year or so, and constantly being surrounded by young people with new ideas and challenges make it a rewarding career.