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Published on 27.11.12

Exploring the Nano-flatlands – CRANN PI, Professor Valeria Nicolosi’s 2012 RDS / Intel Prize Lecture

Leonard Hobbs, Valeria Nicolosi and Tony Scott

On Tuesday evening, November 20th, Professor Valeria Nicolosi received the 2012 RDS / Intel Prize Lecture for Nanoscience in recognition of her contribution to this field. The Award recognises world leading research as well as strong commitments to communicating research to a diverse audience and this year the award was targeted at an early-career stage scientist, based in Ireland, who has been awarded their PhD degree within the last eight years. As part of the award Prof Nicolosi gave a public lecture on the subject of nanoscience, entitled ‘Exploring the Nano-flatlands: New frontiers opened by the world's thinnest materials’.

Professor Nicolosi has a strong track record of communicating her research and she has received numerous awards for both her research and communication abilities including an ERC Starting Grant Award, a Royal Academy of Engineering Fellowship, and she was the single University of Oxford nominee for the 2010 ‘Science and Technology in Society’ Forum. A gifted and energetic public speaker, Professor Nicolosi routinely makes her research topical and accessible to all audiences, her talk this week in the RDS was no exception.

The talk began in a packed RDS concert hall with introductions from Dr Tony Scott, Former RDS President and Chair of the Judging Panel of the RDS/Intel Prize Lecture for Nanoscience and Leonard Hobbs, Head of Technology Research at Intel Ireland. Leonard eloquently described nanoscience as being much like Lego- a fundamental building block technology which we can use to create larger, bigger picture projects.

Professor Nicolosi’s talk then began with a clever and funny visual to get the audience thinking about the scale that nanoscientists work on. Using images of herself in various size scale scenarios; starting with her sitting on a bench, meters, and then travelling all the way down to Professor Nicolosi perched on top of an atom- signifying her arrival at the nano-scale, 10-9 m. Complex scientific topics regarding nanoscience, microscopy and materials science continued to be explained throughout the talk in an accessible and fun way which at no point sacrificed scientific content. Another fun example of this was Professor Nicolosi’s explanation of increasing surface areas with nano-scale materials. Taking a 2 cm sided block of cheese, Professor Nicolosi illustrated how if we broke this block into nanometre size pieces we would have 48,000 cm2 of surface- enough to cover five football fields!

The talk progressed into more detail around the ideas behind the materials science of 2-D objects. The audience was brought on a journey of how scientists found these materials, how they are processed- which involved a brilliant explanation of separation of 2-D materials involving children holding hands, and how to eventually visualise, characterise and utilise these materials. The vast array of work that Professor Nicolosi has been involved in, as well as the wide range of institutes that she has collaborated with, was impressive and all provided interesting details to the overall story of the presentation. An explanation of how our own eyes work was an excellent insight into how Professor Nicolosi’s newest piece of equipment, an aberration corrected transition electron microscope, will benefit Irish research and continue to position us as a world leader in nanoscience.

All of the information contained in the lecture was neatly put into focus towards the end of the talk with an exploration into the real world applications of these materials and the kind of technologies and solutions to future challenges they can provide. To round off the talk there was a Q and A session, chaired by Dick Ahlstrom, science editor with the Irish Times. The accessibility of the lecture was reflected with the wide range of topics that Professor Nicolosi fielded questions about. From enquiries into potential future applications of nano materials to specific questions regarding atomic bonding and quantum physics, it was obvious that the talk was pitched at just the right level for a room with a diverse crowd from scientists to members of the public.

After the talk, Shane Bergin, a fellow CRANN researcher with a commitment to public engagement of science, who recently won the Design for Learning competition said “'Effective communication is at the heart of good science - be it in distinguished journals, through convincing funding proposals, or through bringing your findings to peers and the public. Valeria's talk this week at the Intel RDS Nanoscience public lecture demonstrated her skills in these areas where passion and skill shone through”.

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