The 21st Century Materials Scientist


Rebecca Pool

Friday, July 22, 2016 - 06:15

Image: For more than a decade, researcher, novelist and broadcaster, Professor Mark Miodownik has built bridges between materials research, the arts, humanities, medicine and more.

Talk to Professor Mark Miodownik and it's easy to see why he set up the Institute of Making at University College London, the unique research hub for anyone who wants to make anything.
As a teenager he used his Sinclair Spectrum to create simulations of material properties while later PhD memories include developing micrographs from photographic film and plotting Kikuchi lines, by hand, to determine crystal orientation.
Factor in a metallurgist father with a workshop at home and as he says: "I've always just followed my interests. School wasn't much of an influence but my Dad was a huge influence."
"I think the stuff that happens outside of school is as important as the stuff that happens inside school," he adds.
With a leaning towards the practical, Miodownik's childhood interest in metallurgy was fuelled by an unlikely assault with a razor-blade on the London Underground. He was left with a long scar down his back, but also a thirst to understand how steel and other materials worked.
So, on leaving school, he went straight to the University of Oxford to study Materials Engineering and from here, took up a rather conventional DPhil investigating dispersion strengthened alloys for jet engines.
"I had a tutor in my college that I really admired, and of course this was his research area," says Miodownik. "But it did dawn on me quite late during that doctorate that this wasn't a sexy area to be in and there were thousands of people working here, so the chances of making a big breakthrough were tiny."
Ferro Fluid from Miodownik's Materials Library: When placed in a magnetic field, the liquid becomes a gel and form complex geometrical patterns that follow the magnetic field lines.
Still, the young researcher had also learned the value of working alongside like-minded students and lab colleagues, and took this to his post-doctoral research post at Sandia National Laboratories, US.
Here, Miodownik was, as he says, 'exhilarated' by the US reaction to science. "I would go to a bar in America and people would ask, 'What do you do?'," he says. "I would say, 'I'm a scientist', and they're like, 'Really? That's so cool'."
What's more, the researcher was also ready for change. "I was trying to transition from someone in a very mature area of science to working out what I really wanted to do with my career," he says.
His research at Sandia was still metallurgy-related - modelling the recrystallisation of electronic materials in satellites - but surrounded by myriad researchers from a wealth of fields he became aware of biomaterials and nature-inspired materials.
Two years later, Miodownik crossed back over the Atlantic, took a brief fellowship at University College Dublin and then settled as a lecturer at King's College London. He was already talking to biologists about how nature self-heals and how this could be applied to manmade materials, but then, he noticed another gap in conventional materials science.
"At the time, there were some amazing materials scientists but almost none were developing materials that would have been interesting to design and architecture," he says. "Everybody knew design, architecture and art were so important yet materials scientists didn't even mention it."
Samples from the Materials Library.
He soon recruited then PhD student, Zoe Laughlin, fresh from Central St Martin's College of Art and Design, and also joined forces with Dr Martin Conreen, head of design at Goldsmiths, University of London. Miodownik had already started to amass an extraordinary collection of materials and together, the three started to build, what is now, the Materials Library, home to more than one thousand materials.
Alongside this, the team also started to develop the field of sensoaesthetics, the application of scientific methods to study the aesthetic, sensual and emotional aspects of materials.
As Miodownik says: "Zoe and Martin understood the importance of the sensual and aesthetic properties of materials; materials scientists might think, 'Oh that's a soft skill', but they are wrong."
"This is vital knowledge that takes a lot of time to gain and is vital to design and art," he adds. "So I knew nothing about this, they knew nothing about the technical side of materials and together we had and still have are a very good partnership."
Crucially for Miodownik and his colleagues, the research grants started rolling in, including £70,000 in funds from the National Endowment of Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA), to expand the Materials Library.
Moving on
Miodownik's time at Kings College London was pivotal to where he is now. Beyond sensoaesthetics and the Materials Library, the Head of Materials Research Group published fanatically on the subject of self-assembling materials, organised regular events at Tate Modern, delivered the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, broadcast frequently on BBC Radio 4 and more.
At the same time he was also focused on inspiring students through his teaching, winning awards after award, including the 2004 HEFCE Teaching Excellence Award - voted for by his engineering students - and publishing papers on teaching approaches.
"You learn a lot by teaching and I think you don't really understand your subject unless you teach it; it really is a two-way communication between you and the students," he says.
"But academics can also be pretty egotistical and there certainly is a side of me that wants to be first, you probably wouldn't survive otherwise." he adds. "This can be balanced by building a community and mentoring people, and I think this is why teaching is important."
From the Materials Library: a rare sample of silica aerogel, essentially a glass foam with a nano-structure that contains up to 99.8% air, making it the world's lightest solid. It was made by Steve M. Jones, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Still, come 2011, Miodownik was ready to move on. He'd realised that to really unite materials science and the materials arts he needed a laboratory where communities from different disciplines could collaborate.
"We had struggled to do this in an engineering department and wanted a place that could take our materials library - with its thousands of materials - as well as a workshop that could cut across all the different ways in which you make materials," he says.
Grant after grant indicated Miodownik's unconventional approach worked, a fact that wasn't lost on Professor Anthony Finkelstein, Dean of Engineering Sciences and Professor of Software Systems Engineering at University College London. Finkelstein provided funding and a space, and by 2013, The Institute of Making was born.
"UCL had said 'we will back you, we believe in you' and that just doesn't happen very often in people's careers," he says. "There are just times in life when you're in the right place with the right set of cards at the right moment. It's been lovely to be part of that kind of luck."
But luck or not, in just three years, Miodownik and colleagues have grown The Institute of Making into a thriving, multidisciplinary research club for anyone interested in the 'made world'.
The Materials Library houses thousands of samples from NASA aerogel and double helix tungsten filaments to optical fibres and zebrafish. And at the same time, 'Makespace' the Institute's workshop hosts 3D printers, milling machines, pottery wheels, Raspberry Pi boards, tinkerCAD design software and more.
"Thousands of students and staff have joined us and our offer is open to anyone at UCL; if you're a librarian, cleaner or professor, our workshops are open to you," highlights Miodownik. "Chemistry labs don't have laser cutters, but chemists come in and use these tools to create a super hydrophobic surface," he adds. "Medics prototype engineering scaffolds while artists use 3D printers."
Research projects include 'Hands of X', exploring materials and prosthetic hands with amputees, designers, engineers and others, as well as 'Self Healing Cities', looking at the use of robotics to maintain and repair city infrastructure.
At the same time Institute members have taken part in the 'build-your-own' atomic force microscope 'LEGO2NANO' project and launched OpenAFM, a not-for-profit start-up aimed at sharing opensource AFM in schools.
Students involved in LEGO2NANO aim to develop low-cost scientific instruments including the 'Open AFM'.
According to Miodownik, UCL is already home to a wealth of microscopy and analysis instruments but microscopy is also critical to its Institute of Making.
"Microscopy is always important to us as it involves the study of these invisibly small scales," he says. "We have people recreating old glazes that need to sample and analyse compositions using X-ray diffraction and microscopy so we are also trying to hook up the arts with the bits of kit that materials scientists take for granted." 
So where next for Mark Miodownik? Since setting up The Institute of Making, the UCL Professor of Materials and Society has published award-winning book, 'Stuff Matters' and won many science communication awards. He has also featured on many television programmes from "How it Works' and 'Dara O'Briain's Science club' to 'BBC Newsnight' and 'Chef vs. Science'.
Looking to the future, he will build on his work at The Institute of Making. "Give us ten years and I think we'll be able to point out new ways of living as well as new types of buildings, roads and cities that have come from the people with ideas in our space," he says
And he also hopes to inspire the next generation of materials scientists to inhabit radio, TV, newspapers. "PhD students and postdoc just need to get stuck in," he says. "This is the only way the subject will take its rightful place in popular culture."
Professor Mark Miodownik will deliver his plenary talk 'Materials for the 21st Century' at Microscopy&Microanalysis 2016, on Monday July 25th, at the Columbus Convention Center, Ohio, US.
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