Australian scientists on the cutting edge in Denmark

Australia is going all out to support science, technology, engineering and maths to ensure future prosperity

For some time now, it has been apparent that jobs in the fastest-growing industries require a skill-set based on science, technology, engineering and mathematics – or STEM.

Australia is one of the countries that has made a significant commitment to supporting education in these fields in order to ensure prosperity now and in the future.

Support for STEM education and community engagement is seen as a vital part in helping children, families and the whole community to understand the importance of science and the part they can play in Australia’s future.

Associate professors Kim Dalby and Gemma Solomon are both attached to the University of Copenhagen at the Nano-Science Center and Department of Chemistry. Kim specialises in geochemistry and Gemma works in the field of molecular electronics.

Kim and Gemma spoke to the CPH POST about Denmark and their work here.

Could you give me some idea about how long you’ve been in Denmark and what your research involves?
Kim: I’ve been in Denmark now for eight years, but I came here via Canada. I did my PhD there. Originally, I was studying magma and how volcanoes work. That got me into a world of scientific instrumentation. My boss here called me out of the blue to offer me a post-doc in Denmark. I had always wanted to work in Europe and so jumped at the chance.

For the last eight years, I’ve been working with instruments so I’ve have the opportunity to work on a variety of things. For example, this year we discovered the earliest evidence of life on earth in rocks from Greenland. Another one of my projects that I enjoy working with is looking at the composition of ink in Egyptian papyri. The biggest thing I work on here is how fluids – ground water, gas – move through a rock. I image rocks in 3D and try to understand how the chemical reactions take place within them.

Does this have an application is things like oil exploration?
Kim: Yes. A lot of our grant money has come from BP and Maersk Oil, so we do examine rocks from the North Sea to understand how oil sticks to a rock and how to unstick it, using mostly salt water. The newest project we have (Metal-Aid) is with the EU to clean up all the groundwater in Denmark contaminated in the 60s and 70s by dry-cleaning.

Can you also use these techniques to clean up soil in general – such as in places like Cheminova at Harboøre Tang?
Kim: Well we haven’t thought that far because what I’ve learnt from this project so far is that every project site is very specific, so the geology of the region will play a big part in what will actually work.

Your studies of ink sounds like a totally different tack altogether. Are you working together with the National Museum or Glyptoteket?
Kim: Yes. The samples come from the Carlsberg collection at the Glyptoteket. They have a dump of papyri pieces and want to know whether they can join one fragment to another based on the chemical composition of the ink.

I’ve also worked on a project together with the National Museum on a series of similar18th century Dutch paintings to try and determine whether a picture was painted by the master or one of his students. Here, I’ve been analysing samples of the paint using electron microscopy to determine the mineral composition. This gives an indication as to whether the paint came from the same place.

And what about you Gemma, how long have you been here and what do you work with?
Gemma: I came seven and a half years ago and I took a slightly different route – I’ve got a Danish husband. However, I met him in Australia when he was doing a post-doc. He was very happy there so it was me who actually brought us here because I was applying for academic jobs and Denmark came up with something first.

I work with theory – a totally different world! I do calculations to model how current flows through molecules. We take single molecules and in our simulations, place them between two electrodes and see how the current flows though them – individually and compared with other similar molecules We can also see how much the molecule heats up and how heat flows through the molecule. Our basic question is how to change the chemistry of the molecule to change these electrical properties.

Is this in order to find new sorts of components for computer chips?
Gemma: That was the motivation when this kind of research started but now, the silicon industry has shown itself to be remarkably good at making smaller and smaller silicon-based devices. The techniques that have been developed to try to understand current flow in single molecules allow us to ask very specific questions about how one molecule functions. Now, a lot of the interest in these experiments is providing a fundamental understanding of the properties of that single molecule.

Can you say that because one molecule behaves in a particular way, if you had a collection of them that they would behave identically?
Gemma: As long as the single molecule’s properties are what controls the behaviour of the material. For example, if we are talking about how heat propagates and we have a crystal, there might be a crack or a flaw in it. There is always a balance in talking about what the properties of the material as a whole are versus the properties of the single molecule. At least these techniques give us one piece of that picture.

What is the practical application of all this or is there not really one yet?
Gemma: Well, it gives you information that you can feed into any number of areas. Of course, there is the possibility of using small numbers of molecules to make electronics. There’s a company out of Canada that makes guitar amplifiers, but there’s also a huge industry in organic electronics – screens and lighting. So there is always the possibility to feed into this sort of field.

Are you working on a specific project at the moment?
Gemma: One of our most exciting results of the last year is with some collaborators from Columbia University. They had a molecule and we found that part of it is more insulating than a vacuum. You might expect that pure space, with no nucleii, would be the highest barrier to current flow but actually, what we found was that there was a quantum interference effect. This was more insulating than a gap of the same dimension.

What could you use this knowledge for?
Gemma: It has application for any electronic circuit or transistor. Insulating materials are just as important as conducting materials.

Do you work together on anything?
Gemma: Yes, as a matter of fact! We teach scientific writing together. It gives us a chance to use our English-language skills. There are still a large number of students who would rather we taught in Danish but scientific writing is something they are very happy to learn from us – how to write and present.

That is obviously rather important …
Kim: Yes – and now they are trying to get the bachelor students to submit their theses as a paper. Academics are judged more and more on published work.

Gemma: A lot of these students have never been trained to write scientifically. It’s often assumed that clarity of presentation and writing is something that you will pick up along the way. But, the people who have a natural aptitude for writing are not necessarily the ones who choose to study natural sciences, so we really enjoy helping them.

Kim: There’s always new materials coming out and social media advances, so there are so many ways to communicate science to the public.

Would you say that social media is really a major player, or is it still rather superficial and gimmicky?
Kim: It’s not peer-reviewed, so not counted towards your academic achievements. But if you go to any journal website or journal article, there are places where you can see that the articles has been mentioned on Twitter or in the press or cited by other researchers. So slowly, having a public side to your work is becoming more important.

Isn’t that a bit of a dangerous trend?
Kim: I still think we need journals to be strictly reviewed and structured, but being able to write in such a way that the public can understand and correctly interpret – that’s where we need to be quite clear what we are doing.

You can hardly explain these concepts in however many characters you can use on Twitter …
Gemma: From my undergraduate days, we were taught that you have to be ready to write a publicly accessible abstract. We receive large amounts of taxpayers’ money in our research grants as well as from private foundations in Denmark, so communicating back to those providing the funding seems like a responsibility that comes with it.

I’ve heard from researchers in the US who have pointed out that they might have a paper that is cited 100 times – and that is considered a very successful paper. However, if they post a YouTube video, they can get hundreds of thousands or millions of views! If you are trying to make a difference with your research, there are two very different types of impact there.

I guess you can do both really …
Gemma: This is the idea. It’s all about having the inclination and who the researchers involved are and what drives them.

Have you come across much academic cheating in the course of your work?
Gemma: No! In my experience people generally are in science because they love the process of discovery. There is certainly a concern that you could create a climate where people are pressured to deliver and the pressure may be too much for some who try and deliver something when there is nothing to deliver.

It might be thought that sponsorships from prominent companies working in a specific field could tend to lead research in a certain direction.
Kim: Our group gets a lot of money from the oil industry. But that is a decision you make as an academic: you need money to do your research. If you get your own grant, you come up with the project and drive it the way you want to go. When you apply for a grant, you have a narrow window to work in. If you go to industry for funding, you know that you are going to have to work in this type of research, which hopefully, interests you. So it does end up being science-based and although you don’t know which way it is going to go, it is still workable.

Gemma: It seems as if there are a lot more challenging aspects in medical science. Often, in natural sciences, industries getting involved are looking for a solution that is going to work. It is not necessarily about trying to support a product that they already have.

Is Denmark a good place to work in in that respect, regarding scientific freedom and facilities?
Gemma: I’d say that the working climate in Denmark is very nice, both the working culture and the funding opportunities. Being part of Europe in terms of both funding and collaboration means a lot.

Kim: In Denmark, they also put a lot of emphasis on the ‘knowledge economy’. You need to educate people and need bright minds in a country to develop a lot of the things that are going on here. When I worked in Australia it was often hard to get funding and keep collaborations going because of the distances involved. It’s nice to be in Europe and have the ability to travel around.

Gemma: I did my PhD in Australia and my experience was a little different. At least at that level, you could get money to travel and then you had to choose whether to go to the US, Europe or Asia. The cost was the same. But here, it is relatively cheap for us to send a student to a conference in Germany rather than the US.