Conference: Graphene Week 2017

From the 25th to 29th September last year, I attended the Graphene Flagship’s annual conference, Graphene Week. The conference was hosted in the centre of Athens, Greece, and featured a busy schedule of talks, posters and social events.

I presented my poster on my recent work using hexagonal boron nitride (hBN) as a coating to reduce the friction of steel components. The poster received interest from others at the conference who were also studying 2D materials in friction and wear applications.

Athens is a bustling city, and we managed to visit the main tourist attractions while we were there. A welcome reception was held at the recently refurbished museum at the base of the Acropolis. It’s easy to forget the extent of history that Athens possesses, and the monuments displayed were an enlightening reminder. Our guide demonstrated how the presentation of women in the statues, beginning as simply ornaments to becoming the structural pillars of buildings, reflected the societal attitudes towards women over that time.

The conference closed with a presentation of the next Graphene Week that will be help from the 10th to 14th of September, in San Sebastian, Spain. More details available here.

Conference: ESOF 2016

ESOF2016The EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF), a biennial conference showcasing European efforts on science’s grandest problems, was this year hosted in Manchester. The city was chosen based on its long history of scientific advancement, from Rutherford’s proton discovery to the more recent isolation of graphene. I had never been to the ESOF series before, but the University promoted the programme and the topics looked diverse and interesting. Here I give a short overview of my experience.

The conference was held from 23rd to 27th July, almost one month after Britain had voted to leave the European Union, and this topic was mentioned on many agendas. In fact, a whole session was devoted to how scientific collaboration could continue post-Brexit. The majority of the scientific community felt the European Union benefited them, and the vote to leave cause concern for funding opportunities and international collaboration. Whether scientists did enough to get across how much we benefitted from the EU was discussed in this session, with the conclusion that it had not been portrayed strongly enough. Communicating the impact of science to the public is becoming increasingly important and there are important lessons to learn from the vote to leave the EU.

Looking towards the future, the panel highlighted three main proposals for success post-Brexit: after leaving the EU there would be an 850-million-pound shortfall in research funding that the treasury should fill; companies currently spend 1.7% on research and development, this should be 3 %; and finally that the movement of scientists should still be kept fluid. Like most Brexit issues the details are unclear and we will have to wait and see what happens in the coming months.

Another problem crossing international borders is doping in sports. At the time, news reports were highlighting the state-sponsored suppression of positive doping test results in athletes, and this brought some real interest to this topic. Talking here was Arne Ljungqvist, Olympic champion and ex-head of WADA, overviewing the challenges faced with by anti-doping. He gave a historical perspective about how doping is seen to be against the spirit of the Olympics, and also outlined the modern challenges faced with banned substances being found in many innocuous products.

It is not just Olympic athletes taking performance enhancing drugs, and later speakers highlighted how their use had permeated through society. Now the attraction of these drugs for amateur athletes and image-conscious young people has become a public health risk. They focused, again, on how it is important for scientists to communicate to the public what is known to be harmful about these drugs to improve the public health issue.

A later session discussed the overuse of another kind of drugs: antibiotics. Here the focus was on antibiotic resistance.  This is where over time, bacteria become resistant to the antibiotics we use to treat them through a simple mechanism. To remove a bacterial infection from someone, they can take antibiotics that kill the vast majority of the bacteria in the body. These simple medicines have saved millions of lives and simple infections are now rarely fatal. However, a tiny fraction of the bacteria are genetically resistant to the antibiotic and survive the treatment. These resistant bacteria could then grow into the strain that causes the next infection. This time the antibiotic will not work because of the bacteria’s inherited resistance. This in itself is not a huge problem, as we have tens of different antibiotics that can be used. But the more we use, the more resistant the bacteria become. Eventually we reach strains that cannot be treated with any of the antibiotics we possess. This is a worrying concern and would lead to a world where simple infections can kill.

In the session we learned that there are two prongs to tackle this problem. The first is to reduce antibiotic use to hinder the development of resistance. This means only using antibiotics when essential: for example not using them to improve growth rates in cattle, and only using them in humans to treat bacterial infections. How do we tackle some misinformation about antibiotics so people don’t ask for them to treat any illness? The second is to develop a new array of antibiotics.  Drug development is profit driven, and because antibiotics do not yield large profits they have remained undeveloped for 30 years. This is starting to change now as the issue begins to attract research funding. There was a reassuring showcase of drug development that could help this problem before it gets to the lethal stages.

Our scientific work is generating increasingly more information, both in volume and complexity. One main theme that spanned the whole of ESOF 2016 was this: how can we effectively get this information across for public benefit? How can we inform people that antibiotics are not helping most illnesses and that a resistance is developing which will have serious consequences? Or how can we convince them that leaving the EU will likely have a detrimental impact on scientific research in this country? Or that taking substances for image and sport performance improvements can lead to serious health consequences? There were many other questions like this, and as the science gets more complicated the feeling is that the scientist-public gap is widening. Narrowing this gap is a priority for all researchers if our science is to make the difference. Conferences like ESOF help in highlighting these issues, and allowing scientists to work together and share ideas on these things.


  • Watch videos of the sessions on YouTube:

Materials Week at University of Warwick

From 1st to 5th of February 2016, the University of Warwick organised Materials Week, a week of events focused on the emerging field of 2D materials. These included a workshop to discuss 2D materials in composites and electrochemistry; a colloquium by Professor Jonathan Coleman, a leader in the production of 2D materials; a lecture from Professor Sir Konstantin Novoselov, one of the two researchers who won the Nobel Prize in Physics for having started the 2D revolution; and many other exciting activities.

Electron Microscopy Characterisation of Organic-Inorganic Interfaces

On the 22nd February 2016, the Royal Microscopical Society hosted a workshop at Queen Mary University of London under the title ‘Electron Microscopy Characterisation of Organic-Inorganic Interfaces‘. The meeting addressed the progress in using electron microscopy to study organic materials. Traditionally this is challenging because the energy and number of electrons passing through organic material can very quickly destroy its structure. However, with advancements in electron detection and microscope automation, images can now be acquired before the damage is done by the beam.

There were many interesting talks covering a range of samples, from museum specimens to magnetic organisms. Probably the closest related work was in studying defects in graphene, presented by Professor Angus Kirkland from University of Oxford. They had used the electron beam as an intense spot to create defects, followed by using it in a more-spread, less-intense beam to study what had been created. They could even watch how these defects move through the graphene lattice, nudged along by the energy of the electron beam.

I presented our work on vanadyl phthalocyanine (VOPc) on graphene as a poster during the meeting (a write-up of this work can be found here). VOPc, like many other organic materials, is very difficult to study with electron microscopy as it damages so quickly. By carefully controlling the microscope, we could take images of the VOPc molecules just at the point they are exposed to the electron beam, and get meaningful information about them before they are destroyed shortly after.

Spectromicroscopy at Elettra in Italy

An essential area of materials research is the electronic properties of a solid. Fundamentally, it is the answer to the question: how do electrons (and so electricity) behave in that solid? You can measure these properties by making a device and testing it, but this can be hard to interpret.

An alternative is to measure the energy and momentum of electrons in the solid, called the electronic band structure. The most powerful tool for this is angle-resolved photoelectron spectroscopy (ARPES). With ARPES, you shine a light (a photon source) on the surface of the material and measure the electrons that are emitted. The electron’s energy after leaving the surface can be related directly back their energy in the material. Further, the ‘angle-resolved’ part of ARPES means you collect the number of electrons at different angles off the surface, which tells you what momentum the electrons had in the solid. With both the electron’s energy and momentum, you get the electronic band structure.

synchrotron diagram

A futher improvement to ARPES is to focus the light to a microscopic point, called scanning photoemission microscopy (SPEM). While ARPES is now a relatively common laboratory technique, SPEM is not. This is because you need a lot of photons to be able to collect meaningful spectra at each microscopic point, and even more so because a lot are lost during focusing. This is where a synchrotron comes in. They can produce the many photons needed for SPEM.

microscopy synchrotron diagram
We have used SPEM for two main purposes. The first is to make a map of the property that you are interested in. For example, we can use this to see how the orientation of graphene differs across a surface and see if its electronic properties change with this orientation.

The other way we have used the microscope is to find a small (1 µm) area of interest that can then have its band structure mapped. This has prooved quite successful in our investigations of small flakes of exfoliated materials where the sample is only 1 µm across.

Spectromicroscopy is a beamline at Elettra synchrotron near Trieste in Italy, run by Alexei Barinov and his PhD student, Victor. At Spectromicroscopy we have used SPEM to measure and map the band structures of many different 2D materials.


Me, Neil, Alexei, Victor and Natalie in front of Spectromicroscopy at Elletra.


I graduated from my PhD on the 27th January 2016. It was a nice day to get all the family together and celebrate. Congratulations to Luke, Volker, Daesung, Helen, and Tom who all graduated on the same day!

My thesis will be available on Warwick Library’s Repositry (Warwick Research Archive Portal, WRAP) once the embargo is served.


Hannah, Lyra and I, dressed smart for graduation.

Conference: MMC 2015

Earlier this year I attended the Microscience Microscopy Congress (MMC) 2015 in Manchester. This is the third time I have visited Manchester Central for this conference series and it was another excellent event. My personal highlight was Dr Max Haider from CEOS GmbH, who gave a plenary talk about how he and his company have been working to overcome the problem of spherical aberration in electron microscopes. These efforts have dramatically increased the resolution available in transmission electron microscopes, and opened many avenues of research, including those that I work on.

Whilst at the conference I presented our most recent work on depositing the molecule vanadyl phthalocyanine on graphene. The poster is available to read on the Conferences page. This paper has now been accepted into Advanced Functional Materials, and an overview will be available on this website shortly after publication. With this poster, I was lucky enough to be awarded 2nd place poster prize!