Back to the Future: Oxford nanoscientist takes a trip through time | University of Oxford
Professor Nicole Grobert
Professor Nicole Grobert was interviewed in a DeLorean as part of BBC Newsnight's 'Back to the Future Day' coverage. (Picture courtesy BBC)

Back to the Future: Oxford nanoscientist takes a trip through time

Stuart Gillespie

'It's certainly one of the more unusual interviews I've given,' said Professor Nicole Grobert, fresh from stepping out of a 1981 DeLorean being driven around a Surrey airfield by legendary broadcaster Peter Snow.

It sounds bizarre, but there was a point to it: October 21, 2015 was the date to which Marty McFly and Doc Brown travelled in Back to the Future II, and the BBC's Newsnight programme was keen to find out if the film's vision of the future had become a reality.

Nicole, a nanoscientist in the Department of Materials at the University of Oxford, talked to Peter (who, thankfully, didn't reach anywhere near the 88mph required to activate the flux capacitor…) about her work in a segment broadcast on Tuesday evening's Newsnight.

Speaking to Science Blog, Nicole said: 'Being interviewed in a DeLorean was surreal, scary and exciting. Almost crashing into a barrier added another boost of adrenalin. It was a lot of fun, but for now I'll continue working on the future of materials.'

Those materials are nanomaterials, which exist in a range of different shapes – including nanoparticles, nanotubes and nanosheets (for example graphene) – and are so tiny that we need modern techniques such as electron microscopy in order to see them. By definition, all nanomaterials are no bigger than 100 nanometres (100 billionths of a metre) in at least one direction.

Nicole said: 'The fact that nanomaterials are so small makes them special, because the properties of materials strongly depend on how individual atoms are arranged. In nanomaterials, with at least one dimension being below 100 nanometres, the ratio of the number of atoms that make up the surface to those that constitute the body of that material changes, in that there are more surface atoms that behave differently to those atoms in the bulk. As a result, nanomaterials become more reactive.

'Take gold, for example. Precious gold as we know it in the form of jewellery is heavy, shiny and does not change appearance with time. In contrast, gold in the form of nanoparticles can exhibit different colours depending on the nanoparticle size, and it can be used as efficient catalyst material in the chemical industry. The change in properties and behaviour of materials at the nanometre scale is purely owing to the change in size and the ratio of surface atoms to atoms located in the centre of the particles.'

She added: 'By manipulating the structure and composition of nanomaterials, their properties can be tuned further, and if we can find ways to produce these tailored nanomaterials in a controlled fashion, it will allow us to exploit their extraordinary properties.

'In theory, nanomaterials can outperform traditional materials. They can be highly conductive, lightweight and ultra strong. If we tackle current practical challenges related to manufacturing, characterisation, processing and handling, nanomaterials could be the answer to many of modern society's problems – not just in the areas of energy or health care.'

Nicole has already received some positive feedback from a mother whose daughter watched the Newsnight piece and has now decided she wants to become a nanoscientist.

Nicole said: 'I never saw myself as a role model until the day I gave a talk to school children at the Department of Materials open day, when a girl came up to me to ask me what she had to do to become like me. That was a bit of an eye opener. Since then, I've been actively trying to encourage both young women and men to get into or stay in the STEM subjects.

'As a supervisor, it is my personal goal to inspire students to think independently and take control over their projects from day one. Where possible, I also let students and post-docs shape their own projects, while providing them with a safety net in case things don't work out as planned. That's because I very strongly believe that developing independent research ideas and achieving personal success based on those ideas is key to building up the confidence necessary to follow one's dreams.

'Personally, I just followed my interests and was not put off by the fact there were so few female scientists around. I never even thought about it until I saw girls and young women react very differently to this fact.

'Needless to say, science and research are crucially important for society to survive, and, from my point of view, jobs in the STEM subjects are among the most versatile, inspiring, flexible and fun jobs around.'

Watch Nicole’s Newsnight appearance.