10 July, 2015
MacDiarmid Institute alumnus, Dr Nick White was born in the UK, but grew up in New Zealand. He completed his BSc (Hons) at the University of Otago, and PhD at the University of Oxford.
From 2013–2015, Nick was a Killam Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of British Columbia. He was appointed as a lecturer at ANU, and will take up his position in October 2015, conducting a research programme investigating anion–templated functional materials.
He sat down with Kate Hannah to discuss his science, and what has inspired him throughout his remarkable career trajectory.
Tell us about the first time you remember science making sense to you, the point where you knew you wanted to explore it more (maybe as a career)?
Near the end of the second year of my undergraduate degree, (MacDiarmid Institute Principal Investigator) Prof. Sally Brooker asked if I wanted to do a ten-week summer research project in her lab. It sounded pretty interesting (and I got paid!), so I did that, and that kind of got me hooked on research chemistry.
I decided to focus on chemistry, did another summer research project at the end of my third year and then my honours project (both with Sally Brooker) – I still find research fascinating, so I’m pretty stoked that I get paid to do it as a career!
What’s the piece of kit or that still makes you get goosebumps, gets you excited?
Throughout my research career, I’ve really enjoyed X-ray crystallography, a technique where the diffraction of high-powered X-rays can tell you the exact 3D structure of a molecule. During my PhD in the UK, I got to use the UK’s synchrotron to do X-ray crystallography – basically, it’s a kind of particle accelerator that generates incredibly high-powered X-rays. It looks like a massive flying saucer (it’s about 600 metres round) and it means we could get information about the 3D structure of really big molecules really quickly.
Who are your scientific role models/heroes?
I’ve been really fortunate that the three supervisors I’ve had have all been great people to work for, and they’ve all had very different styles and strengths. My first supervisor, Prof. Sally Brooker, is incredibly enthusiastic and really knows what each of her students are doing – and how to get the best out of them, and always goes the extra mile to look out for her students.
My PhD supervisor, Prof. Paul Beer was the complete opposite of the stereotype of an Oxford professor – he was incredibly down-to-Earth, and he leaves work at six every day and that’s it, he is very good at finding a work-life balance. My current boss, Prof. Mark MacLachlan, is very different again – he lives and breathes chemistry and bounces into the lab yelling at the top of his lungs! He’s been a great supervisor for me, as he just gives you some good ideas and then lets you get on with it. So I guess in a way, all three of these are kind of role models.
I also admire Prof. Chris Hunter, who works in the same general field as me (supramolecular chemistry), but has taken a really methodical and systematic way to try and understand exactly what’s going on in the systems he investigates.
I’m really inspired by Dorothy Hodgkin who was one of the pioneers of X-ray crystallography. During her PhD (in the 1930s), she managed to show that crystals of a protein diffracted X-rays, which was considered pretty ridiculous at the time…and then throughout her career, she used X-ray crystallography to determine the 3-dimensional structure of increasingly complicated and large biomolecules – starting with things like steroids, then vitamin B12 and finally insulin. These were all huge molecules – and at-the-time scientists had no knowledge of their 3D structure (or often their structure at all), and so her work really opened up new doors for synthetic chemists and biochemists. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1964.
What is the coolest thing you’re doing, scientifically, right now?
In the last few months, we’ve had some pretty neat results here. We made a molecule containing several alcohol groups (the same functional group that’s in the alcohol we drink), and then we’ve been able to use a weak interaction (called a hydrogen bond) between these alcohol groups and negatively-charged molecules (bromide anions) to assemble six-sided hexagonal tubes. These tubes have a diameter of approximately 2 nm (2 billionths of a metre!)
As far as we know, we’re the first people to use this method to make extended structures. What’s even more exciting is that the interactions we’ve used are generally thought to be very weak, so any structure made from them would fall apart pretty easily. We’ve shown that that isn’t the case, and our hexagonal nanotubes can withstand being put in a vacuum, soaking in water, and even prolonged heating.
What would you like to do next?
During my PhD I spent a lot of time researching anions and how to bind them. During my postdoctoral position, I’ve mainly been looking at ways to assemble small, simple, easy-to-make molecules into complicated structures. In the last few months, that’s culminated in using anions to assemble hexagonal nanotube structures (see Q6).
In my independent career, I want to take this a step further and try to use anions to template the formation of structures that can perform useful tasks. So for example, can we use anions to build framework materials that can absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, or remove environmental pollutants from drinking water?
What are you most excited about in the move to ANU?
I’m really excited about starting my own research career, getting to run my own group and all the responsibilities and challenges that’s going to entail. From what I’ve seen so far, it seems to be a great department, with excellent facilities, so it should be a great place to start my career.
What will you miss about where you are now?
Working at the University of British Columbia has been fantastic from a science-perspective, but it’s also meant I’ve had the opportunity to live in Vancouver. I really enjoy living here, it’s a really interesting multi-cultural city set in beautiful surroundings – my bike ride from home to work takes me along by the beaches, then through a forest…all in the shadow of Vancouver’s mountains. So I think I’ll miss that, as well as the friends I’ve made here – people from just about every corner of the world.
What does the MacDiarmid Institute mean to you?
The MacDiarmid Institute is really where I started doing research chemistry, so it means a lot. I think it’s a really neat concept to have such a large group of leading researchers spread across the country working on similar goals.
In terms of when I was working as part of the Institute (2007/2008), collaborations within the Institute meant we could get complex magnetic measurements on our samples done quickly and easily (with expert analysis), MacDiarmid funding meant I had access to some great pieces of kit to help with my research, and it meant Sally Brooker was able to fund me as a research assistant after I’d finished my BSc(Hons). These things enabled us to publish some cool science so that I could get accepted to a PhD at Oxford, which has had a huge impact on my career.