Material supergirl - lecturer, presenter and materials researcher Michelle Dickinson

Materials World magazine
2 Jan 2014

From testing coatings in the lab to becoming a superhero for a TEDx talk, Michelle Dickinson’s career is one in which there truly is no typical day. Rachel Lawler reports. 

‘Materials science has always had a publicity issue,’ says senior lecturer, television presenter and materials researcher Michelle Dickinson. With an already impressive list of responsibilities, Dickinson has also tasked herself with spreading the word about materials science to a wider audience. ‘I think that we as materials engineers need to have a public voice and emphasise the importance of what we can do, especially when it comes to the future of energy solutions and sustainable manufacturing.’ 

Located at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, the Dickinson Nanomechanical Research Lab is where Dickinson and her team study nanomaterials, thin films and biological materials. ‘Our research focuses on developing new methods of using probe indentation techniques to measure the mechanical properties of materials,’ Dickinson says. The lab works closely with many industries, including metalworks companies identifying grain microstructure inhomogeneity and polymer synthesis companies studying dynamic modulus and effects of humidity. She explains, ‘We also have a large biomaterials research component looking at both healthy and diseased animal and human biopsy bone and tissue to understand how small changes in the micro-architecture of living tissue can have an effect on the larger scale mechanical properties’. 

Recent projects have included developing a new technique for large-scale electrospinning of polymer fibres. Dickinson explains, ‘Our client was struggling to stop these high surface area fibres getting attached to the substrate they were being rolled onto. This meant that the fibres were being damaged as they were removed from the substrate. Our lab was able to develop a technique for looking at the adhesion force of the individual nanofibres against different materials in order to quantifiably find the least adhesive to act as a roll substrate.’ 

Another recent client wanted to determine the dynamic modulus of their thin polymer paint film and examine how adding silica nanoparticles could change the paint’s wear resistance. ‘We were able to measure both the static and dynamic modulus of one-micron-thin paint coatings and help them to determine the optimum amount of silica to add to give the coating enough elasticity to prevent it being brittle as well as having good surface abrasion protection,’ Dickinson explains. Helping clients find an answer in this way motivates Dickinson, who says, ‘Being curious by nature, it is always rewarding to find solutions to problems. Whether that is through a set of research experiments with a solid conclusion or successfully building a sample holding device to enable a different test technique to be carried out – I always get the most enjoyment out of finishing a project.’ 

Dickinson also works as a Senior Lecturer at the University of Auckland, teaching more than 800 engineering students in their first year of study. ‘It’s great because this is usually the students’ first exposure to the world of materials and you can see their fascination develop. It’s such a delight to hear them talking about wanting to become materials engineers and solve some of the big materials problems such as solar energy efficiency and hydrogen battery technology.’ While she admits that the number of students in her class can be a little overwhelming, she manages to strike a balance between her teaching and research roles. ‘As with any busy job, good time management is essential for me, particularly when I am also trying to attend international conferences and research visits. But I have a great group of graduate students who help me to run my lab when teaching is taking over in the middle of the semester,’ Dickinson says. 

Her fascination with materials engineering began at an early age. She says, ‘My dad was an avionics engineer and as a child I would follow him around during the summer holidays. I was always fascinated with how things worked, but never had the ability to put things back together after taking them apart.’ She knew she had found the right discipline when she discovered a course in fracture mechanics at the University of Manchester, UK, where she studied for a MEng before completing her PhD in Materials Engineering and Biomedical Engineering at Rutgers University, in New Jersey, USA. 

Since then, Dickinson’s work has focused on nanotechnology. She says, ‘I am totally in love with the nanoworld – the possibility of being able to create self-assembling materials or make micromotors, or to try and mimic amazing natural properties such as superhydrophobic surfaces. I love that I get to witness science fiction becoming science fact every day.’ But nanotechnology isn’t her only enthusiasm. She adds, ‘I am passionate about science communication, too. I have a regular breakfast slot [on New Zealand’s TV3] in which I talk about the latest science news as well as giving several public science talks each month.’

This passion led Dickinson to give a talk on nanotechnology for TEDx Auckland in December 2012. She explored how developments in nanotechnology could help her become a superhero. ‘It was an incredible experience, although nerve-wracking to speak in front of more than 2,500 people,’ she says. ‘It’s always difficult to try and convey complex technical science to a general audience, particularly when you are used to filling your sentences with complex engineering jargon. But the public feedback has been so positive that I feel incredibly lucky to have been given the opportunity.’ 

Since then Dickinson has given many other public talks and television interviews on materials engineering and nanotechnology. She says, ‘I hope that more materials engineers come forward to showcase their research to the public, as I have always found that people are generally interested in science and engineering. However, all the academic language we tend to use can sometimes alienate the public.’ With her work in science communication Dickinson hopes to help materials science mitigate its image problem, but she also targets youngsters in the hope of attracting new recruits. She says, ‘I spend a lot of time giving talks about nanotechnology at schools to try to expose teenagers to the discipline, because it is rarely introduced on the school curriculum. Ensuring that science is well taught and funded in schools is crucial for creating a new generation of materials scientists.’ She also invites work experience students to complete placements in her lab. She says, ‘This tends to be a memorable experience and many students write to me afterwards to let me know that they have decided to become an engineer because of the placement.’ 

Looking to the future, Dickinson is optimistic about what lies ahead for the field, ‘We are living in an age where technology development is so quick that you can learn something new every day,’ she says. ‘The advancement and accessibility of 3D printing along with the speed and capacity of portable electronic devices and the ease of international communication, mean that the materials research landscape has completely changed,’ she adds. With engineers as passionate and capable as Dickinson inspiring the next generation, materials science seems to have a bright future ahead. 

To scientists entering the industry, or trying to get ahead of the game she advises – ‘Stay adaptable, as the field is moving quickly, but most of all, make sure that you enjoy what you do’.