The Future of Materials Chemistry

An Interview with Fiona Meldrum

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Chemistry and material science contribute to the synthesis of our future! Materials with unimagined properties are formed by scientists inside laboratories.  Our team managed to open one of these locked laboratory doors inside the University of Leeds and take a look at the inspirational work done. 

Fiona Meldrum is a researcher in the School of Chemistry here at the University of Leeds where she holds her own research group. Her research is focused on crystallization which is how crystals are formed. It was a quite an honor to let us have an interview together since she is very recognized in her field. She is one of the persons who help science unravel unknown ideas. The time I shared with her was quite inspiring and I hope to transfer this feeling to each one of you! 

                  

Which are the areas where your group’s research is focused on specifically?

We look at crystallization; so we are interested in how crystals form and particularly how we can manipulate crystallization process to produce structures that we actually want to. Lots of our inspiration comes from biology. So, if you look to biological structures such as your bones and teeth and sea shells, they challenge in many ways our preconceptions. You think of a crystalline material as something which has a regular geometric form, however biology shows that this does not have to be the case. Often, we tend to follow expectations and we have to kind of get out of that mode and think out of the box a little bit. Biology maybe forces you to do that because it shows you what is possible. And once you see what is possible, sometimes it is not that difficult to actually achieve it.

So through crystallography what we have understood for our world?

Crystallization is everywhere from the formation of ice to pharmaceuticals where you have to produce specific polymorphs, in biominerals or biomaterials such as artificial bones. If you want to make advanced materials for example inorganic nanoparticles, you have to be able to control the properties and you can only do that by understanding how this crystallization occurs.

What is your current most demanding research question?

Currently I would like to solve the calcite – aragonite problem. If you see at calcium carbonate is polymorphic and forms different crystal structures. So, at room temperature you can have calcite or aragonite or vaterite. When we precipitate, we often take calcite and vaterite in the test tube, so it is rather hard to make aragonite without any additives. Biology, however, makes loads and loads of aragonite. The stability of calcite and aragonite is actually very similar, not much difference. Calcite is slightly more stable than aragonite but not much and yet you never see that aragonite. We want to understand this. If I manage to solve that, we will get better insight into polymorphism.  

 

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An issue of high priority for the scientific community currently is the inclusion of women in STEM.  From the years of your experience have you seen more and more women working on STEM fields? 

During my career, I would say number of women has increased. I mean if you look at chemistry undergraduates now is about 50:50. I think is the same at post-graduate level. It is just that at the more senior level that you tend to start losing the women. But even them, there are more than when I started out.

Recently, you were awarded the 017 Interdisciplinary Prize of the Royal Society of Chemistry. On top of that, your colleagues across the University included you in the 10 Women of Achievement for 2018.  Please tell me what this recognition means to you? Does it affect your work and if yes in what ways?

Certainly estimates of esteem such as these prizes do help you to get certain grants. If you putting in for a fellowship application, this is exactly the sort of things that they look for. They look for the estimates of esteem from your peers. So it certainly helps you there. And of course in your psychology, it is nice to win something. Nobody is going to dare tell otherwise, I do not think. And also, I feel is nice to my research group, it is nice for them to feel that the work they have done actually matters.

 What are you think the traits a potential scientist should have to achieve something significant in his/her field?
Determination! You need lots and lots of determination. Because in doing a PhD, most days you go to work, you fail, you have to get up and do the same for the next day and you will fail again. But then the high you get when it real works is worth it. So you need loads of determination and that will take you I think further than being really smart. You can be really clever but without the determination you do not get very far. So, it is really key to be extremely determined. Also, curious; you have to enjoy; you have to be interested in what you do!