8 April, 2019
The discovery of conducting polymers – plastics that conduct electricity – won New Zealander Alan MacDiarmid the Nobel Prize in 2000. The research of MacDiarmid Institute Principal Investigator and University of Auckland Professor Jadranka Travas-Sejdic closely succeeds him in this field.
Professor Travas-Sejdic’s research involves the next generation of advanced polymers that have revolutionary potential for human health and medical treatments. She is now director of the University of Auckland’s Polymer Electronic Research Centre.
Polymers are long-chain plastic- like materials that repeat their structure regularly, and can be engineered to be ‘biocompatible’ – able to be used as substrates for skin and other tissue. These materials are flexible, stretchable, adhesive, and can conduct electricity. One of the many things they can be designed to do is stimulate healing.
Professor Travas-Sejdic spent the last four months of her 2018 sabbatical working with Professor Ali Khademhosseini, Director of the Center for Minimally Invasive Therapeutics at the Department of Bioengineering, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She met Khademhosseini when he was at Harvard University, Boston. The laboratory’s main research field is the development of biomaterials and engineered systems for tissue engineering and ‘organ- on-a-chip’ systems that can mimic human response to various chemicals in vitro. Professor Travas-Sejdic says she found the experience invaluable, seeing from the inside how such a large and successful group operates with up to 70 (soon to be 100) researchers.
“It was a real advantage having people from different scientific backgrounds (biology, bioengineering, electrical and chemical engineering, chemistry, materials chemistry etc.) and all the necessary facilities in one lab. The research is intensely focussed with huge potential impacts in view.”
The other valuable experiences for Professor Travas-Sejdic at UCLA were the almost daily high-level seminars, workshops or conferences. “The environment was dynamic, stimulating and energising. And being stationed in LA for an extended period enabled me to easily attend other conferences in the US, including one on polymers in biomedicine, a point-of-care sensors conference in San Diego, and a large Materials Research Society meeting (MRS) in Boston.”
Establishing connections and collaborations with groups at such large universities can be difficult, as the competition for a top academic’s time is huge. Professor Travas-Sejdic says that this is where the real value of the MacDiarmid Institute lies – easy access to other expertise and facilities, and the willingness of members to collaborate.
‘We must continue to consciously nurture, grow and utilise the MacDiarmid collaboration culture,’ says Professor Travas-Sejdic, who became a Principal Investigator in 2007. She gained her PhD at the University of Auckland in 1999 and returned there in 2002, following work in the private sector for Genesis Research Corporation Limited and Pacific Lithium Limited. She works closely with MacDiarmid Institute Investigators Professor Maan Alkaisi, Professor Sally Brooker, Professor Justin Hodgkiss, Dr Volker Nock, and Professor David Williams.
On her return to New Zealand, Jadranka will be concentrating on an MBIE-funded project to make porous substrates that can capture metastasising cancer cells for analysis, another potentially powerful application of biomaterials science.