Meet the Women in Nanoscience

In recognition of International Women's Day on Sunday 8th March and the LCN’s Athena Swan initiative, we shine a spotlight on our fantastic female researchers, who are pushing the frontiers of nanoscience for healthcare, information technology and the environment. 

Click on the photos below to read their breakthroughs, achievements, career highlights and goals for the future.

Dorothy DuffyLaura BovoMolly StevensEleanor grayRachel McKendry

Sandrine HeutzNatascha KappelerHolly HedgelandJennifer BrookesAlice Pyne

Professor Rachel McKendry 

Going viral: The digital future of global health 

Professor of Biomedical Nanotechnology with a joint position at the London Centre for Nanotechnology and Division of Medicine at UCL, Director of i-sense, the EPSRC IRC in Early Warning Sensing Systems for Infectious Diseases and Director of Biomedicine and Life Sciences at the London Centre for Nanotechnology.

Research: My research aims to harness the power of nanotechnology, telecommunications and big data to fight infectious disease. Recent research highlights span from unravelling the nanomechanical workings of antibiotics against MRSA (Nature Nanotechnology 2008, 2013 and 2014), to creating mobile phone-connected tests for HIV (NIHR i4i programme), and a major new EPSRC programme called i-sense, which aims to build early warning systems to prevent epidemics, by linking web data with mobile phone-connected tests. 

I’m very proud of i-sense because it brings together such an outstanding team of interdisciplinary researchers from across UCL, Imperial College, London School for Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Newcastle and Surrey Universities with Public Health England, the NHS and industry partners, including OJ-Bio, Microsoft and Google. 

In less than 18 months we have built a real-time mapping system to identify disease hotspots across the UK, linking social media, web searches, crowd-sourcing, clinical and public health data. We are also developing innovative mobile phone-connected diagnostic technologies that can link results into our early warning systems with geo-located information.

The next exciting steps will be linking our technologies into NHS systems, our new collaboration with the Wellcome Trust Africa Centre and an ethics study to responsibly develop our technologies. You can find out more information about i-sense at

Career Highlight: Winning the £11M EPSRC IRC grant and the Royal Society Rosalind Franklin Award after returning from maternity leave and part-time research. 

Image: Depicts the i-sense mission to develop early warning systems for infectious diseases by combining self-reported symtoms on the web with mobile phone-connected diagnostics and traditional health surveillance data. Credit: i-sense.

Professor Molly Stevens

Innovative Materials-based Approaches for Regenerative Medicine and Biosensing

Professor of Biomedical Materials and Regenerative Medicine and the Research Director for Biomedical Material Sciences in the Department of Materials, Department of Bioengineering and the Institute of Biomedical Engineering at Imperial College London.

Research: I lead an extremely multidisciplinary research programme that designs and develops innovative materials, which have applications in a range of fields such as regenerative medicine, tissue engineering and biosensing.

My team create bio-inspired materials and nanomaterials that go well beyond the state-of-the-art as well as innovative materials-based characterisation methods that inform on the cell-material interface. My major goal is that these innovations elicit a step-change in medicine and have real clinical impact. For example, I am developing various elegant materials-based approaches to engineer tissues and create diagnostic platforms capable of detecting diseases such as cancer, HIV and acute pancreatitis, amongst others.

My group’s research has received over 20 major awards including the 2012 EU40 Award for best materials scientist under 40 in Europe as well as a listing by The Times as one of the top 10 scientists under 40.

Career Highlight: Developing nanomaterial-based ultrasensitive biosensing technologies for a range of applications in healthcare. 

Image: Analytical techniques reveal that spherical calcium phosphate particles are the first mineralized structures to be formed in the calcification process in cardiovascular tissues. Credit: S. Bertazzo, Dept of Materials, Imperial College London. Full Nature Materials article here.

Dr Dorothy Duffy 

Growing and destroying crystals in computers 

Reader in Physics, London Centre for Nanotechnology and Department of Physics and Astronomy, UCL 

Research: Modern computers can be used to simulate experiments on materials that would either be difficult or expensive to study in the laboratory. In such computer experiments we can observe the positions of all the atoms and how they move on ultrafast timescales. 

In my research group, we develop and apply computer modelling techniques for a range of technological and scientific problems, including radiation effects in materials, with a particular focus on fusion energy applications, biominerals and ferroelectrics.

Radiation effects often degrade performance, both mechanical and electronic. They are a major concern in the nuclear and aerospace industries and a major hurdle to the successful development of fusion power for energy generation. Radiation effects can also be advantageous, particularly in nanotechnology, where ion beams and lasers are used to create nanostructure materials and devices. 

We develop methods for the predictive modelling of such effects in a range of materials. Organic-inorganic interfaces are responsible for the exceptional mechanical properties of biominerals, nature’s method of providing protection (shells) and support (skeletons) for living organisms.

My group uses modelling techniques to understand the mechanisms controlling biomineralisation and the origin of the exceptional properties. 

Career Highlight: The award of a Daphne Jackson Fellowship that helped me to resume my research after an extended career break and set me on the path to an academic career.

Image: The image shows the time evolution of the density of a gold nanofilm following irradiation by a femtosecond laser pulse, calculated by molecular dynamics modelling. Results published in Daraszewicz et al., 'Structural dynamics of laser-irradiated gold nanofilms', Phys. Rev. B  (2013).

Dr Sandrine Heutz

Beyond photosynthesis: Using molecules for the devices of tomorrow

Reader in Functional Molecular Materials, Imperial College London

Research: I am interested in using molecules, similar to the famous chlorophyll, for applications in electronics, optoelectronics and spintronics, i.e. low cost solar cells or new types of computers. 

Molecules are the ideal nanomaterial; they contain many different parts with specific properties that can be exploited within their ~1 nm2 size.  In the molecules we study, the organic ring will give them their vibrant colour. This means they are efficient at absorbing light, while the central metal can behave like a small compass, which can store information depending on whether it is pointing “up” or “down”.  

My focus is on forming well-controlled thin films or nanostructures with these materials, so they can be implemented into devices.  This is very important as the precise position of the molecules within a material can entirely change their properties. 

My talented group is looking at different aspects of the problem so we get a really deep insight into the materials, but we are also collaborating with scientists across a range of disciplines, including theorists, device engineers, biologists and physicists, to unlock all the secrets and potential of this fascinating field.

Career Highlight: Wheeling my first enormous stainless steel vacuum chamber over a rather delicate-looking glass bridge to bring it into my lab - after getting through this, I knew that everything was possible!

Image: Molecules forming chains, where the central cobalt atoms form an ordered magnetic structure at temperatures above the boiling point of liquid nitrogen – very high for molecules! Credit: Sandrine Heutz, Wei Wu, Gabriel Aeppli. Full story here

Dr Eleanor Gray

Fighting viruses at the nanoscale

Post-doctoral Researcher, London Centre for Nanotechnology and i-sense EPSRC IRC, UCL

I work in an interdisciplinary field with physicists and chemists to create the next generation of diagnostic tests that will allow us to detect infectious diseases, such as flu and HIV, earlier and more accurately than ever before.  

Working together with a team from across different disciplines means that we can come up with exciting new methods to address old problems.  I lead the development of novel capture proteins, including llama antibodies, against the HIV viral protein p24 to diagnose infections with high sensitivity and specificity. I also lead the early clinical evaluation of mobile diagnostic technologies using patient samples.

I work closely with clinicians at UCL Partners to ensure we develop technologies that meet their needs and the needs of the patient. 

Career Highlight: Coming back to academia after a period working in an applied science lab was a good move, and enabled me to focus on what I loved best, which is fundamental science research.  One of my past career highlights was my research on a strange virus called XMRV, which was thought to be a novel human virus, until our work showed it to be an artefact due to contamination! It is one of the most highly cited publications in the field- full paper available here

Image: Alignment of selected p24 sequences from world-wide subtypes. Credit: Sequences were downloaded from the Los Alamos HIV Database and aligned using Se_Al (Rambaut, A. 1996-2002. Sequence Alignment (Se-Al) Program, 2.0a11 ed. Department of Zoology, University of Oxford).

Dr Holly Hedgeland

More than just scratching the surface...

Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, London Centre for Nanotechnology, UCL

At the scale of individual atoms and molecules our macroscale understanding of everyday phenomena such as friction is no longer applicable and, as yet, a full atomistic understanding has not been developed.

The dynamics and interactions of individual molecules on surfaces have direct technological applications. The processes of adsorption, motion and self-assembly underlie industries, ranging from catalysis to the development of micro- and nanoscale electrical-mechanical systems, biomedical applications and molecular motors.

My work examines the dynamic and electronic properties of molecular adsorbates by using microscopes with atomic resolution and sensitivity to electrical conductivity, in combination with helium and neutron scattering measurements of motion.

By combining these techniques with state-of-the-art calculations and modelling, I seek to bridge the gap between understanding the behaviour of individual molecules and collective nanoscale systems.

Career Highlight: Returning to science after two years out and securing a Leverhulme Trust Fellowship to pursue my own research programme.

Images: Molecules on a silicon surface (right) and me with the scanning tunnelling microscope used to take the picture (left). Credit: Holly Hedgeland. 

Dr Laura Bovo

Exotic magnetism in two dimensions

Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, London Centre for Nanotechnology, UCL

Research: I’ve recently started a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship working to create original and independent research on “Thin Films and Multilayers of Frustrated Magnets – tuning their exotic properties”. Previously I was a Post-doctoral Research Associate in Professor Steve Bramwell’s group at the LCN.

I have a strong background in both inorganic chemistry and in the physics of frustrated magnets. I have been working on “spin ices”, known for their emergent magnetic monopoles and a magnetic equivalent of electricity known as “magnetricity”.  

My achievements include demonstrating how magnetic monopoles undergo Brownian motion and making the first ever nanometer-thick films of spin ice (Dy2Ti2O7). These results generated high-impact papers in Nature Communications (2013, 2014)

I’ve also developed an alternative way of measuring magnetic entropy on absolute scale via magnetization and pinned down some interesting physics of spin ices, related to demagnetization and susceptibility. These results appeared in two separate papers in Journal of Physics: Condensed Matter (2013).  

Career Highlight: My report of the first ever, thin films of spin ice – a substance that contains magnetic monopoles – received considerable media attention and was highlighted in Nature Materials, social media and several blogs. Full article available here.

Image: The first thin films of spin ice. The orange colouration shows a spin ice film of only a few billionths of a meter thickness. Credit: Laura Bovo. 

Dr Natascha Kappeler

Feel the bacterial vibes to fight antibiotic resistance

Post-doctoral Researcher, London Centre for Nanotechnology and i-sense EPSRC IRC, UCL

Research: Antibiotic resistance poses one of the gravest threats to human health. Since every single antibiotic use gives the bacteria a chance to evolve resistance, we need to keep the antibiotic use as low as possible and try to avoid misuse.

Current tests, to determine whether infectious bacteria are present, and which antibiotic would kill them, can take up to several days. Consequently, initial treatments administered to patients tend to be a broad-spectrum antibiotic or even a mixture of different antibiotics. 

We are developing an instrument that detects the presence of bacteria and determines the correct antibiotic to kill them, in just a couple of minutes. The bacteria are captured on a micrometer-sized spring board (shown in the image to the right). If the bacteria are alive, then they vibrate, which can be measured by a laser that is reflected at the tip of the spring board (illustrated in the left panel). If the bacteria are dead, then they do not vibrate (illustrated in the right panel).

Various antibiotics are flushed over the bacteria and, by measuring the vibration, we can determine whether the antibiotic is effective. For example (as shown in the right image), the bacteria in red are resistant to the light blue antibiotics and still vibrate, whilst the blue ones are sensitive and no longer vibrate; they have died. 

Career Highlight: Filing a patent from my PhD project, to improve antibiotic stewardship and treatment, with Sphere Medical Ltd. and UCL. 

Image: Detecting antibiotic-resistant bacteria with cantilevers. Credit: Natascha Kappeler and Rachel McKendry, from "Sensors: Good vibrations for bad bacteria" (Nature Nanotechnology, 2013). Full article available here.

Dr Jennifer Brookes

The sound of sickness: listening to the particular acoustic properties of disease

Post-doctoral Researcher, London Centre for Nanotechnology and i-sense EPSRC IRC, UCL

Research: My research, in theoretical and computational physics, gives me the opportunity to put natural systems under the microscope. As my work is computer-based this ‘dry-lab’ approach means the microscope is metaphorical; I look at the atomistic and electronic make-up of molecules that do fascinating and important things in biology.

Catching an infectious disease is, unfortunately, a pretty nasty way to observe fascinating nano-scale interactions. Falling ill with the flu for example - the invading virus attacks and releases 'biomarkers', i.e. antigens, which are detected and dealt with by the antibodies, produced by the body in defence. Luckily we can exploit this selective antigen-antibody recognition process by using it on biosensors for fast and reliable detection of disease.

My research investigates ways to optimise biosensors for disease detection, for example, by modelling the acoustic (sound) waves on the surface. Coating the sensor with biomarker capturing antibodies makes a noise; a note of a particular frequency that identifies the disease when the antigen is recognised. A particular disease can be heard! This is just one demonstration of how wave analysis may be useful in biological systems. 

Previously my research has investigated where quantum waves may be important. In photosynthesis, this is steroid recognition and even smell (one of the ultimate natural biosensors!) Examining the electronic and atomistic properties of biological systems, and vibrations that may define them, be it using quantum or classical mechanics, proves to be a useful and exciting way to shed light on what is happening on a much larger scale.

Quantifying nano-scale effects that account for experiences in everyday life, ranging from your morning cup of coffee to your first symptoms of an infectious disease, is surely some of the most fun you can have in a scientific career! 

Career Highlight: Publishing in Physical Review Letters: the work attracted a lot of media attention and led on to my application and award of a Sir Henry Wellcome Post-doctoral Fellowship from the Wellcome Trust. Ever since achieving this fellowship, I have had the opportunity to work with a fantastic range of scientists at home, in the lab and all around the world.

Image: Modelling quantum and nanomechanical effects in biosensing systems. Image on left shows capture coatings to detect viruses, image on right is an olfactory receptor in the nose, which enables our sense of smell. Credit: Jennifer Brookes 

Alice Pyne

Understanding DNA structure in the cell: How to fit 2 metres of DNA into a cell without damaging its function

Post-doctoral Researcher (soon to be a Research Fellow), London Centre for Nanotechnology, UCL

Research: The discovery of the iconic Watson-Crick DNA double helix is central to our understanding of how our genetic material is stored. This beautiful regular structure was obtained by averaging millions of short straight segments of DNA. 

However, in each of our cells we have 2 metres of DNA, which must be coiled and twisted around itself to fit into our cells. This twisting affects the secondary structure of our DNA and must be closely regulated to ensure that our vital cellular processes, such as gene expression, are not affected.  

By visualising DNA-protein interactions as a function of structure in a physiological environment, I hope to improve our fundamental understanding of DNA structure in the cell, which could lead to developments in targeted drug design.

Career Highlight: Seeing the double helix of a single strand of DNA in clear contrast before my eyes, realising that there were variations in the structure and knowing I’d revealed something no-one had seen before

Image: An image of the DNA double helix structure taken with the AFM, with the Watson-Crick DNA structure overlaid (purple and blue). Credit: Alice Pyne, from "Single-Molecule Reconstruction of Oligonucleotide Secondary Structure by Atomic Force Microscopy" (Small 2014).

For more information on the LCN’s Athena Swan initiative, please contact Kailey Nolan and Rachel McKendry.  

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