SciSoc Spotlight Issue 25 – Dr. Jenny Zhang

27 May 2021. Dr. Jenny Zhang was with the Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry, School of Physical Sciences. A PDF version of this Issue is available here.

Research focus: Photosynthesis, electrochemistry, bioenergy

We are fascinated by the chemistry occurring within photosynthesis, an important process that sustains life on Earth as we know it. In particular, we analyse how solar energy is harvested by photosynthetic machineries to move electrons around for the breaking and making of bonds. We wish to better understand the nature of the electrode movements so that we can eventually ‘re-wire’ photosynthesis using chemical approaches for bespoke purposes – such as the generation of renewable bioenergy or the creation of novel biosensors.

What made you decide to pursue research?

I loved how research challenges me to be my most curious, rational and creative self. Being at the forefront of discovery is also pretty addictive!

One piece of advice…

Don’t go for the easy wins, challenge yourself to master something difficult and turn it into your superpower.

SciSoc Spotlight Issue 22 – Dr Chiara Giorio

8 May 2021. Dr Chiara Giorio is with the Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry. A PDF version of this Issue is available here.

Research focus: Atmospheric Chemist

Air pollution causes 7 million deaths per year worldwide. One the most concerning air pollutant is particulate matter (small dust suspended in the air). We study the atmospheric processes that can modify the composition of particulate matter during its lifetime in the atmosphere, and we aim to understand the link between composition and toxicity. We look at the molecular mechanism by which particulate matter can cause lung inflammation or diseases such as Alzheimer.

What made you decide to pursue research?

I have always been interested in understanding the natural environment, promote good practices to preserve it, and solve environmental issues for the benefit of society in general. Academia gives you the freedom to follow your inner passion in ways that no other environment can.

One piece of advice…

For many years I thought I was not good enough for doing research; my main drivers were curiosity and passion. I am now a lecturer and I have my own research group. Over the years I have grown and I have learnt that persistence is more important than talent, and that you need to work hard, look for opportunities to grow and be open to take the chances that will come towards you. My advice is to follow your passion and never give up when you face adversity.

Myself at the botanical garden here in Cambridge

Me, in my lab during the first lockdown in 2020, collaborating to a research project that looks for methods to clean ambulances with ozone to decrease turnaround time after transporting covid-patients.

Me inside a maritime container, hosting instrumentation, during a cruise in the mediterranean sea (#peacetime cruise) in 2017 looking at how the atmosphere composition changes when dusts from the Saharan desert get transported and deposited in the sea, providing more nutrients for phytoplankton species.

SciSoc Spotlight Issue 24 – Dr. Sam Troughton

20 May 2021. Dr. Sam Troughton was with the Keronite International. A PDF version of this Issue is available here.

Research focus: Plasma Electrolytic Oxidation (PEO) Coatings

PEO coatings are produced on lightweight metals in an aqueous bath of eco-friendly chemicals under applied potentials of hundreds of volts. This generates extremely hot, but small and short-lived plasma discharges on the surface which creates a super hard protective oxide coating. Working in an industrial R&D environment means you are usually working on multiple projects simultaneously, so it is hard to summarise everything, but I’m mostly focused on optimising the process to achieve ultra wear or corrosion resistant coatings.

What made you decide to pursue research?

Having a variety of projects and being able to see the results of your research put directly into use is one of the main reasons I decided to move into industry after completing my PhD in Materials Science at Cambridge. I really enjoy having several different projects to work on, and having various time scales for them to run – some can be very short turnaround times of just a few weeks which allows you to see results put into action very rapidly, whereas others require years of careful research. Another big draw for me was being able to interact with many different companies and being able to see what ideas are being worked on at the cutting edge of space, aerospace, automotive, and manufacturing industries.

One piece of advice…

Do something you enjoy and talk to lots of people about it, both in your own department and other departments. Other people can often give you great ideas or help you solve a problem from a different perspective, and they may have suggestions of things to try that you haven’t heard about yet.

K2-18b: A Habitable Zone Exoplanet 124 Lightyears Away

Krishna Amin (St Catharine’s). February 27, 2020. 

In a paper published today (27 Feb), researchers from the Institute of Astronomy revealed findings on the interior and atmospheric composition of exoplanet K2-18b, orbiting an M-dwarf (‘low-mass’) star in the habitable zone, only 124 lightyears away from Earth.

K2-18b’s density, between those of Earth and Neptune, suggested a hydrogen-rich outer envelope surrounding a rocky interior. Previous studies of similar planets proposed temperatures of around 250-300 Kelvin (-23 to 27 °C) – similar to those found on Earth. Given these properties, the authors detected the presence of water and the absence of methane and ammonia and did not find ‘strong evidence’ for clouds in the atmosphere.

The interior of the planet was modelled with an inner iron layer, an outer silicate layer, a water layer and a hydrogen/helium layer. Notice the similarities to Earth’s own structure: iron core, silicate mantle and crust, oceans, some sort of atmosphere. Consideration of variations on the model (i.e. different compositions and masses of different layers) resulted in three ‘representative classes’ defining K2-18b that include a ‘range of possible compositions’: rocky world, mini-Neptune and water world.

Life as we know it can survive in a huge range of harsh conditions, from pressures of ~1000 atmospheres and temperatures of ~400 K (127 °C). Whether or not K2-18b is habitable depends on the extent of the hydrogen/helium atmosphere. Many solutions to the data give water at the atmosphere-ocean boundary – the surface of the water layer – to be in the ‘supercritical’ phase, but some give water in the liquid or gas phases. The ‘water world class’ has liquid water approaching normal conditions (27 °C, 1-10 atmospheres) under a thin hydrogen/helium atmosphere, a description seemingly like that of Earth. Furthermore, chemical disequilibrium – the absence of methane and ammonia – indicates the possibility of biochemical processes, although other explanations exist. The authors argue that the search for biosignatures – signs of life – should not be limited to smaller rocky worlds as larger planets such as K2-18b have the potential to host life.

Their paper:
Nikku Madhusudhan et al 2020 ApJL 891 L7.

SciSoc Spotlight Issue 23 – Prof. Marian Holness

13 May 2021. Prof. Marian Holness is with the Department of Earth Sciences. A PDF version of this Issue is available here.

Research focus: Igneous petrology

My research is concentrated on understanding the processes which occur during the melting and solidification of rocks – these include the formation and segregation of crustal melts, and the evolution of the crystal mush forming at the margins of cooling magma chambers. I approach these problems by starting with detailed field observation and sample collection, with careful microstructural observations using microscopes (both optical and electron) coupled with geochemical analysis to decode rock history.

What made you decide to pursue research?

I have always been interested in pattern-finding, and understanding why things are the way they are. I decided I wanted to be a scientist when I was 14 and have stuck with it ever since. A scientist is essentially “who I am”…even if I weren’t doing research in a university, I would be puzzling things out and trying to work out why things are the way they are. I am lucky in that I have found my niche, with lots of engaging problems to work on and the opportunity to get outside and visit interesting places while doing that.

One piece of advice…

The main thing is to find out what you’re good at. It took me a while to realise that my skills lie in observation, rather than numerical descriptions. I was lucky to find interesting and important problems to work on that are fundamentally grounded in seeing what is in front of our eyes. Find your superpower and then work out how best to use it!

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