This year’s Lindau Nobel Laureates Meeting will give almost 700 young scientists from around the world the opportunity to meet and talk science with 61 Nobel Laureates. What’s it like to be an ambitious researcher today and does your experience of "doing science" or your hopes for the future depend on where you work? I’m planning to listen to the thoughts of three young scientists over the next couple of weeks – before, during and after this year’s meeting – to compare their stories. In this post we get to meet Emmanuel, Paul and Jisun.
Emmanuel Unuabonah is an associate professor of Chemical Sciences at Reedemer’s University in Nigeria.
Paul Rupar is also a chemist and works as a Postdoctoral Associate in polymer chemistry at the University of Bristol in the UK. He obtained his PhD from The University of Western Ontario in Canada and moved to the UK in 2009.
Jisun Moon obtained her B.Sc and M.Sc in physics at Korea University in Seoul, South Korea. Since 2006, she has worked in the lab of Prof. Alan Heegar at the University of California.
Can you explain your research area to a non-specialist in three sentences?
EU: Presently, I use modified clays and/or agricultural waste materials such as wood sawdust, palm kernal fibre and Carica papaya seeds. The research is aimed at providing cheap but very efficient materials that could be used for treating water and wastewater. My ultimate goals are to design a small but very cheap system that is able to effectively treat water and to provide industries with very cheap materials that could be used in treating wastewater in place of expensive resins.
PR: In the Manners’ group (University of Bristol), we work with organometallic diblock copolymers. These block copolymers have two distinct chemical domains and can self-assemble into well-defined micelles. I am researching ways to fine-tune control of the micelle self-assembly.
JM: One of our group’s main research topics is polymer solar cells. In polymer solar cells, the active layer, which absorbs light and generates electricity, is made of a blend of two materials, polymer and fullerene (soluble buckyball). My work is to observe the morphology of the polymer and fullerene domain and study how to control the morphology such as connectivity, domain size, and the directionality of each polymer and fullerene domain.
Do you think that what you’re working on has a practical application or is it more conceptual, and does this matter to you?
EU: My work has a practical application. Materials I have modified so far can be combined in a system to treat water.
PR: The work that I am personally doing right now is very conceptual in nature. That said, as our control of micelle growth continues to advance, we are constantly considering ways to apply our systems to functional materials. We have some exciting applications planned in the near future. From a funding perspective, I believe that it is often easier to secure grants for applied research as opposed to funadamental research.
JM: I think it is both practical and conceptual. Solar cells have obvious practical applications, but the morphology of polymer and fullerene for polymer solar cells, which is what I am focusing on, is more of a conceptual research topic.
What’s your average day at work like? Meetings? Lab work? Reviewing papers? Teaching?
EU:Teaching 50%, lab work 35%, reviewing papers 10%, meetings 5%.
PR: I think my average day is fairly typical for a post-doc. Most of my time is spent working on experiments, discussing research with other members of the lab, and reading literature at my desk. We have weekly group meetings where the students and post-docs present their own research and recent results from literature in a more formal fashion.
JM: I spend most of my time for lab work and analysis of the data, as well as discussion with other group members. I consistently make lab schedules and like to have occasional long times for reviewing papers.
What’s been the biggest challenge in your research career so far?
EU: Epileptic power supply.
PR: I find research itself to be very emotional. If my chemistry is working well, I become excited and it is easy to work hard. However, when things are not going so well in the lab, I can become very discouraged. My biggest challenge is to stay focused and work through the tough times.
JM: I haven’t had too many difficulties in my research yet because I have been getting great support from my advisor.
The skill is in realising that the unexpected sludge sitting in the bottom of your flask is actually a major breakthrough.
Do you think you’ve had any lucky breaks? Any key experiments that worked first time or an important bit of advice that you were given or a timely grant/publication?
EU: Yes, I’ve had two breakthroughs in the preparation of two new adsorbents.
PR: I think serendipity is a big part of research. The skill is in realising that the unexpected sludge sitting in the bottom of your flask is actually a major breakthrough. I was extremely lucky during my PhD studies. I had a number of unexpected results and was able, with the help of my supervisor and the people I worked with, to recognise their significance.
Are there many others in the world working on the same subject as you? Do you think this helps or hinders you?
EU: Yes, there are many others in the world working on my area of research and this does help because from reviewing or reading some of their works I get new ideas and I am able to make better contributions to the subject by every new publication.
PR: There are a number of groups woking on the self-assembly of micelles using block copolymers. Other research groups approach similar problems in often different and creative ways. It is exciting, instructive and inspirational to learn from the work of others. The downside of a crowded scientific field is that there is always a risk of someone else publishing results similar to you, but this makes you want to work even harder so this can be viewed as a positive influence.
JM: For now I am the only one who is doing the cross-sectional transmission electron microscopy (TEM) phase imaging for polymer solar cells. The good thing is that I’m the first one to see the data in the world which can be very exciting and sometimes surprising too. The bad thing is that there are no references for me to look at and have to look at all the samples I want to see.
What key questions do you hope will be answered in your research area in the next 60 years?
EU: How do we recover micropollutants from adsorbents for further use rather than discarding them with spent adsorbents into the environment or desorbing them from the adsorbents into the environment again?
When shall the larger volume of data obtained for various low-cost adsorbents be put to use in practical terms for the benefits of society?
PR: The research that I am performing right now is part of the larger field of self-assembly. Essentially, a carefully designed molecular system can be made to spontaneously assemble into larger structures under the correct conditions. Biological systems (e.g. a proten, virus etc) represent the ultimate form of self-assembly. I am curious to see if human designed self-assembly can ever approach the complexity of natural systems.
A Nature/Science publication will be enough for me for now!
If you could have three wishes about your work granted this year, what would they be?
i) power supply in my laboratory
ii) Some very important equipment for surface characterisation such as the Scanning Electron Microscope etc be installed in my lab
iii) I am able to produce my dream adsorber system that is cheap and able to remove micropollutants from water even at parts per billion levels
i) Obtain a faculty position at a research intensive university
ii) That my current project (which is very different from my PhD thesis) keeps moving in the right direction
iii) Publish the results from my 2nd wish in a top tier journal
JM: A Nature/Science publication will be enough for me for now!
How did you hear about the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting and how did you apply to attend?
EU:Through the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (AWAS) and I was nominated by the same academy.
PR: I heard about the Meeting through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) of Canada and was nominated by NSERC to apply to attend.
JM: I heard it from my advisor, Alan J. Heeger who is a Nobel Laureate in 2000 and he encouraged me to apply to attend.
This conference will give me the opportunity to interact with young scientists from various countries and various scientific disciplines… and possibly initiate collaboration with them.
What are you most looking forward to about attending this year’s meeting?
EU: I look forward to listen and to interact with scientists who have made breakthroughs in their various scientific fields (Nobel Laureates) and be inspired by how they have been successful in their research. Attending this conference will also give me the opportunity to interact with young scientists from various countries and various scientific disciplines and share with them the best practices in scientific research and possibly initiate collaboration with them. This will go a long way to further motivate me in my research.
PR: Of course I am very excited to meet the Nobel Laureates!
JM: I look forward to meeting all the great Nobel Laureates, as well as my fellow peers in the scientific world.