Barbara, let’s start at the very beginning. When did you first realise you wanted to become an engineer?
There wasn’t really a lightbulb moment where I suddenly knew I wanted to be an engineer. But as long as I can remember, I’ve always been deeply curious about the world around me.
As a child, I was especially interested in how things worked. This interest drove me to dismantle many of my toys to get a look at their machinery. This was long before I’d worked out how to put things back together, unfortunately, so a lot of my exploratory surgeries were fatal—much to the annoyance of my parents.
Things came to a bit of a head when my mum caught me trying to open our TV with a screwdriver. It was one of those old cathode-ray television sets, and I was desperate to figure out how it could make images.
Thankfully, whatever punishment my mum gave me wasn’t enough to stem my curiosity. But it wasn’t until I got to high school that I learned I could turn my fascination with how things functioned into a career. That’s when I decided to study engineering.
You stuck with engineering well beyond high school. In fact, you just received your PhD in “developing porous nanocomposites and tuneable polymer membranes”. Could you tell us more about what this means and why that interested you?
I have always been charmed by the world of materials and how we can coax a range of properties from a single, seemingly-ordinary substance.
Nature is rife with examples of materials doing magical things. One of my personal favourites is chameleon camouflage.
To change colour, a chameleon uses two kinds of iridophores, which are special kinds of cells that manipulate light. The first is filled with pigments, while the second contains nanocrystals. By stretching and flexing its skin, the chameleon can change the configuration of these nanocrystals, altering the various hues of light they absorb reflect. This – the manipulation of nanoscopic structures – is what provides these wondrous creatures with their awe-inspiring ability to blend in with their environment.
As a student, I was so taken by this and many other examples of nature’s relationship with material properties that, in my doctoral work, I decided to explore whether it was possible to develop synthetic substances that were similarly versatile. Because I am also interested in biomedicine and biological processes, I was especially intrigued to see how these multifunctional, tunable materials could be used in medical devices.
One of the areas I explored was drug delivery.
Many materials make poor drug carriers because they are susceptible to the ‘burst effect’. As the name suggests, the burst effect is where a material carrying a drug releases its contents in a rapid, uncontrolled manner, often far away from where it would do the most good in the patient.
In a recent study, my collaborators and I demonstrated that nanoparticles combined with biocompatible polymers to form smart nanocomposites could suppress the burst effect.
Our experiments in the Diamond Light Source Synchrotron were key to demonstrating the potential of employing such composites to enhance the release of anti-cancer agents by a factor of about 20 times, significantly improving the effectiveness of the treatment.
Who do you look up to in the field of materials science and the wider world of science?
One thing I love about working in science is that there are so many people to be inspired by. We scientists and engineers really do stand on the shoulders of giants.
In the material science world, I’m a huge fan of Professor Eleanor Stride at Oxford University’s Department of Engineering. Professor Stride is doing some incredible work leveraging smart nanomaterials in medicine. As I’ve mentioned, this application is very close to my heart.
Outside of materials, it is almost impossible not to feel inspired by chemists Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin, mathematician Katherine Johnson and engineer Mary Jackson. They were titans in their fields. And yet, aside from Marie Curie, they received next to no credit for their groundbreaking achievements.
How large an impact do you think materials science will have on humanity’s future?
Materials science has a huge role to play in addressing many of the challenges we face today. For one, nanotechnology can play a pivotal role in our battle against climate change.
The same crystalline ‘sponges’ that can be used to encapsulate drug molecules can also be used to pull carbon dioxide right out of the air. Two classes of material have been proven to be effective at this: carbon nanotubes (CN) and metal-organic frameworks (MOFs).
Scientists have explored using carbon nanotubes to sequester carbon dioxide for many years. Recently, MIT researchers developed a new CN-based process that could work on gas at any concentration, from the dense emissions spewing from a power plant to the more rarified carbon circulating in the atmosphere.
MOFs, meanwhile, are considered one of the best candidates for pollutant removal due to their porosity and remarkably high surface area of 7,800 meters squared per gram. That’s more area than a regulation-sized FIFA football pitch.
Materials science can also help us tackle the global shortage of potable water.
Various projects, including this one from Montreal-based Awn Network, have demonstrated that we can use nanotechnology to harvest pure water from the air, even in desert conditions. This would have enormous implications for the millions of people without access to clean water.
These are only two examples of the far-reaching impacts material science could have on our lives and the world around us.
Speaking of cutting-edge projects, you now work as a technical consultant at GrantTree, where you help innovative businesses secure government funding. What does a typical day in the life of a technical consultant look like?
In essence, being a technical consultant at GrantTree means getting to grips with cutting-edge technologies and then explaining them, in simple terms, to HMRC and other funding bodies.
To do this, I spend a fair amount of my time meeting with CEOs and CTOs and hearing about the amazing technical projects their companies have been working on.
These meetings are fascinating but highly technical. So my experience and passion for materials science really come in handy.
On either side of these meetings, I spend a lot of time getting to understand the ins and outs of my clients’ technologies. I look at how they work, what happened during their R&D, and how the technology fits into the broader technological landscape.
This research helps me explain my clients’ technologies for an HMRC tax inspector or grant competition assessor clearly and accessibly, without resorting to jargon or academese.
When I’m not talking to clients or learning more about their field, I’m usually catching up with colleagues or sharing my technical expertise with the wider company.
I’m lucky that people at GrantTree have a real passion for learning, and it’s always fun to talk about nanotechnology with people who have open minds.
What do you like most about working at GrantTree?
Without a doubt, talking to cutting-edge businesses about their technology and getting a close look at the innovative things they’re working so hard to develop.
The UK tech scene is filled with passionate, intelligent people designing fantastic solutions with a positive impact. So it’s a real privilege talking to founders and financial decision-makers about what they’re working on and how it will improve the lives of their customers and broader society.