By Ana Neves (@seveNSIanA)
Associate Research Fellow, College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, University of Exeter
I guess I always knew I was meant to be a scientist. Why? I remember I used to dismantle my toys to understand the mechanisms that would make them move or make noises. I also remember that the best part about decorating a Christmas tree was to play with the lights and change the colours. I surely didn’t chose to be a scientist because of my family, my mother is a History teacher and my father is a lawyer. They made sure I learnt from them the delight of reading a good essay, going to an art gallery or learning a new language. I still love all of that, but I figured I could still study all of those subjects in my spare time. And I couldn’t just be a scientist in my spare time, it had to be my whole life! Because we are science, everything around us is science, and looking around and not understating why the sky is blue, why I got those awful electrical shocks from the Christmas lights or how grape wine turns to wine… I had to know why!
I chose to study Chemistry. It wasn’t enough, apparently, so my PhD focused on Materials Science as well. Still not happy with it, I had to learn some things about Electronics as well, and nowadays I’m a researcher in a Physics group in an Engineering Department. All of this makes it particularly tricky when people ask be what is my research subject, so I just made one up: Fibretronics! Sounds nice, doesn’t it? I also like the term smart textiles.
Let’s take a small step into the future. Imagine you could change the colour of your sweater. Feeling blue in morning? A grey afternoon? Or blushing red for a romantic dinner? If the weather gets cold, just turn on the heating in your shoes or jacket. And forget about that uncomfortable chest strap to monitor your heartbeat when you hit the gym, smart-clothes will read it for you, monitor your body temperature and sweat. Your car seat will also adapt to your temperature, and if you get lost, the sat nav on your (now polka dot) sweater will guide you home following the GPS tracker on your jacket! And textiles are not only clothing, they are carpets, the frame of a high-performance bike or the trolley we use to pack our stuff to go on holidays.
In order to get make the future happen, we need to get rid of heavy, stiff, fragile and expensive computers and mobile phones. Electronic devices need to be flexible, transparent and lightweight. The trick is to build electronic devices directly on textile fibres that can later be woven into fabrics and transformed into clothing or other items. For that, we have to replace the metallic wires and the rigid components for organic components. And these materials are called organic because they are made of the same components than living beings, and therefore are bio-compatible. That’s where I come in, I’m building those devices on different types of fibres, step by step. First we replace the copper wires in common devices for conducting fibres and polymers, than we make each electronic component out of molecules in flexible supports, and then we combine it all together. But it’s not as straightforward as it sounds, and that makes my job a constant challenge and a lot of fun!
But there’s another key ingredient to make that future (and all imaginable futures) happen. We need to change the stereotype of the scientist. Be honest, when I talked about Chemistry you pictured a middle-aged male scientist with messy hair, wondering around all day in a labcoat, mixing up colourful effervescent liquids in funny flasks with a lot of smoke coming out… You did, didn’t you? And a Physicist is obviously an Einstein-looking dude with no social skills playing with laser beams. Come on, there are some weird looking guys (and girls!) around in the College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, where I do my research, and the majority of my co-workers are from the opposite gender, especially in leadership functions. But this is changing, and it’s up to my generation to continue the work or many brave young women that have defied the gender discrimination in the past. My goal in science is not only be successful in my field of research, I want to influence young women to follow my footsteps in the same way that my supervisors, most of them brilliant female scientist, inspired me in all the stages of my career. So show up in Exeter in June 13th to see that being a women in science is a lot of fun and how different we are from the old stereotypes!