Her Material World: Nicola Gaston joins Real Scientists!

This week, Real Scientists is pleased to welcome Dr Nicola Gaston (@nicgaston), Associate Professor in Physics at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and Co-Director of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a NZ Centre of Research Excellence. She has been a Principal Investigator in the Institute since 2010, and has previously been employed at Victoria University Wellington, at Industrial Research Ltd as a Research Scientist, and at the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems in Dresden, Germany, as a Postdoc.

Outside of paid employment, she has served as the elected President of the New Zealand Association of Scientists for two years in 2014-2015, and is the author of Why Science Is Sexist, published by Bridget Williams Books. Her research investigates theoretical approaches to the description and prediction of the structure and properties of nanomaterials, based on quantum mechanical simulation.Me-macd

We chatted with Dr Gaston about their science journey so far.

How did you wind up in science?

I liked studying it and was too bloody minded to stop. My work is on the theoretical side: I’m interested in how to develop methods of describing the structures of materials (especially nanomaterials) that are sufficiently accurate that we can predict what those materials can be used for – e.g. in energy generation and storage, or in computing where materials that minimise energy use are needed, or in the development of smart surfaces and sensors, for example. I don’t get to work at the applied end myself very often, but I collaborate with people who are working to commercialise their research, which is really cool.

Brilliant. What motivates you about your work?

Collaborations with a wide range of experts from physics, chemistry, biology and engineering, who are interested in everything from really fundamental work to economic impact through creating start ups or partnering with industry, to public engagement and science communication. It’s fun!

One of the major underlying points of materials science, which we are not as good at talking about as we should be, is that in developing control and understanding of the relationship between structure and function we can be much smarter about what materials we use for a particular purpose – such as all the components of your smart phone, for example.

So we can replace toxic or scarce elements with safe and abundant ones, for example, or simply minimise the amount of material needed through nanostructuring, or develop smart ways of recycling materials for use in tech. There’s a really innate connection to sustainability, but not merely to energy sustainability, but also material sustainability.

What do you do when you’re not in the lab?

I like to get involved in things outside my day job – I’ve been the President of the New Zealand Association of Scientists, so developed a bit of an interest in science policy that might be something I talk about this week; I also wrote a book in 2015 called ‘Why Science Is Sexist’ which is based on a blog I kept going briefly, but has also led to a number of opportunities to work towards greater equity in science.

Please welcome Dr Gaston to Real Scientists!

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