STEM career hero: ‘Nanotechnology is tiny, but its potential is huge’

Woman stands in amongst machinery

Passion is key: getting to grips with a subject takes more than just intelligence

The University of Cambridge’s Prof Judith Driscoll on her big breakthroughs, and why being an academic is a bit like running a business

Judith Driscoll, 49, is professor of materials science at the University of Cambridge and an expert on nanotechnology. She read materials science at Imperial College London, followed by a PhD in superconductivity at Cambridge and post-doctoral research at Stanford University, California and IBM Almaden Research Centre.

I’m always surprised more people don’t study materials science. It’s broad and creative and so important to our everyday lives. I loved physics, chemistry and maths at school and hit on materials science as a great way of continuing with them.

I looked at jobs in industry but research seemed so much more exciting. High-temperature superconductivity was the new thing in the late 1980s so I chose a PhD in that.

Studying for a PhD was tough. It’s completely different from a first degree. Intelligence isn’t enough. You have to be creative, have your own ideas, cope with setbacks and work largely unaided. But it is a great way of finding out whether a career in research is right for you.

The research for which I’m most famous happened on sabbatical. After eight years mostly spent teaching, doing admin and raising money I really wanted to get back into the lab, so I went to Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico to work on a new idea I had to combine superconductivity and nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology is unbelievably small. A nanometre is one billionth of a metre, roughly the length a human hair grows in the time it takes to pick up a razor.

Nanotechnology lets you create substances as small as one molecule thick, giving enormous surface area for speeding up chemical reactions. You can also miniaturise computer components, potentially storing a terabyte of data per square inch.

And you can achieve quantum confinement, where particles are so small that electrons behave differently from normal, enabling new optical, electrical and magnetic properties to be realised.

My big breakthrough concerned the creation of “perfect” defects in very thin films of superconductors. My brainwave was to create nanoparticles within a thin film superconductor using a different material that I knew the superconductor wouldn’t react with.

It worked right away, achieving very much higher currents in the superconductor and opening up a whole new world of applications in power transmission, conversion and storage, and in high-power magnets for important science experiments such as the Large Hadron Collider and fusion research.

Nanotechnology may be tiny but its potential is huge. It could give us much more efficient solar power, better storage of renewable energy, cancer-killing drugs delivered to just the right cells in the body, biotechnology to clean polluted environments, even molecular-scale robots called nanobots.

My latest research involves making new kinds of composite thin films that mimic how the brain works.

Being a senior academic is rather like running a small business. Your “product” is your research output and you have to raise funding, manage the lab and the people, supervise the work and “market” your work to other academics.

The wonderful thing about my job is the freedom. In my research nobody tells me what to do or when, and when my daughters were young I was able to work very flexibly.

You need to be really passionate to succeed in science. If you’re not the type to give up your weekend to really understand something then you’re probably not cut out for it.
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