How ants clean their antennae could help the nanotechnology industry

Cleaning their antennae is crucial for ant survival, but how do they do it? (Image source)

Cleaning their antennae is crucial for ant survival, but how do they do it? (Image source)

Ants, the tiny insects that we usually try to get rid of in our homes are being showcased through research out this week that highlights these fascinating little creatures. Not only can they carry 50x their own body weight, but they have incredibly sensitive hairs on their antennae which allow them to smell food, follow pheromone trails and communicate with other ants. Being a small insect, that lives underground, ants spend a significant proportion of their time just keeping clean, and it’s is especially important that they keep their antennae clean otherwise they will lose their way.  Until now no-one has really looked at the mechanism behind how this cleaning process works and how we could copy it to help clean nanoelectronics. Researchers from the University of Cambridge have found that Camponotus rufifemur ants have a specialised cleaning structure on their front legs that is highly efficient at removing different sized particles.

Scanning electron microscope image of tarsal notch showing different hairs used to clean antennae with artificial colouring added. (Image source)

Scanning electron microscope image of tarsal notch showing different hairs used to clean antennae with artificial colouring added. (Image source)

The ant system consists of a notch and spur with three levels of hairs which the antenna is pulled through.  By watching the cleaning mechanism under a scanning electron microscope, they found that the three clusters of hairs work together to each perform a different cleaning function. Initially a set of ‘bristles’ (red on image) scratch away the largest particles on the antennae, then a series of ‘comb’ hairs (blue on image) remove smaller particles and finally a ‘brush’ (green on image) area gets rid of the smallest particles. The arrangement of three sets of hairs means the cleaning structure work as a particle filter that can clean different sized dirt particles with one single cleaning stroke and could help to solve some of the surface contamination issues faces in modern nanofabrication techniques  which currently have to be carried out in expensive cleanrooms.


How Mythbusters inspired me to make a live science show!

Mythbusters, we all know it, we’ve all seen it and after over 10 years on our TV screens we all have our favourite busted myth.

When I found out that Mythbusters were going on tour and doing a live show, I was so excited! I imagined a real live science show full of explosions and fire with scientific explanations about why and where and how.

Meeting Adam and Jamie from Mythbusters

Meeting Adam and Jamie from Mythbusters

They announced their tour dates, and sadly didn’t have New Zealand listed on their agenda, so I booked tickets for the closest event to me, Melbourne Australia.  Yes, that’s right, I flew to Australia just to watch Adam and Jamie blow stuff up.

Ironically, pretty much the week after I spent hundreds of dollars booking my tickets, Mythbusters announced they were going to add New Zealand to their tour, then Kari Bryon announced that she was leaving the Mythbusters show, and as one of the few TV females in a male dominated science show I couldn’t stop humming Alanis Morissette’s song Ironic.

At the show I sat next to some children who were equally as excited about it as I was, eager to learn something new and be entertained while educated.  We sat through the whole show which sadly didn’t contain any fire, or explosions (other than ones being played on video), or scientific theories and although we were entertained we were sadly not really educated.

After the show I asked some children what they learned from the show, and they said nothing, but they liked how the high speed camera made people look funny and how some guy got shot with paint-balls while wearing a suit of armour.

Audience member being shot with paint-balls while wearing a suit of armour at the Mythbusters behind the myths live show.

Audience member being shot with paint-balls while wearing a suit of armour at the Mythbusters behind the myths live show.

I was lucky enough to meet Adam and Jamie backstage and was reminded that they were not scientists, they were special effects guys, and they put on an amazing special effects show!  I however am a scientist, and one who is passionate about education and communication and being a positive female role model, surely I could do something about my frustrations!

I made a pact that night, that I was going to create a live show that was both entertaining and educational that would have fire and explosions and a female scientist lead.

Of course I have zero experience in making shows, performing shows, or knowledge of the health and safety rules of fire and explosions in buildings, but me being me, I said my idea out loud to a few people and before I knew it I had committed to a show!

After a lot of hard work from the Auckland Arts Festival and ThinkScience team and with the experience and creative genius of Gareth Baston, Nanogirls Live Science Show became a reality!

I wanted there to be fire, and explosions, because inspiring kids is so much easier with the flash bang stuff, but I also wanted there to be content, explanations and theories so that learning was part of the experience.  I wanted girls to be able to see a female role model in an industry that is usually stereotyped by men in lab coats, and be inspired that they too could one day be a fire starting (or any other kind of) scientist.

So here it is – the full one hour live science show with totally ridiculous experiments that made me laugh, jump and hide in fear!

If you are short on time and want to skip to the big bang, minute 51 is the one for you.

Global Impact Visas – why a technology rich New Zealand ecosystem needs them

The late Sir Paul Callaghan (image source)

The late Sir Paul Callaghan (image source)

“One hundred inspired New Zealand entrepreneurs can turn this country around.”  Sir Paul Callaghan

Those words led me to being in a really unexpected place this morning, listening to the Prime Minister give his speech at the National Party’s annual conference.

I was there specifically to hear his announcements on something I’m passionate about, the use of immigration policy to help attract high-value entrepreneurs to New Zealand particularly the idea of a Global Impact Visa (GIV).

Today the government officially announced it would be considering them.

John Keys official speech said that the government “will consider a new global impact visa targeted at young, highly-talented and successful technology entrepreneurs and start-up teams, who want to be based in New Zealand, employ talented Kiwis and reach across the globe.”

Prime Minister John Key announcing the Global Impact Visas at the National Party Conference today.

Prime Minister John Key announcing the Global Impact Visas at the National Party Conference today.

The question arises of what should these visas look like in order to shape a global export focussed New Zealand? I think its an exciting time to be in as we can create something with a unique design for a fast changing economy.

From conversations I’ve been involved in, the purpose of the visa is to give a limited number of high impact entrepreneurs and investors the ability to establish or be involved in new ventures each year by moving to New Zealand. It will be important that this visa be flexible around the concept of how success is measured, which can not just be financial success if we are to attract entrepreneurs with global impact potential.

To ensure that the programme is robust and adds value to New Zealand’s core capabilities, it would be a good move for the government to actively collaborate with the private sector on the development and implementation of these visas.

One thing that has been incredible so far with my experience of the conversations around Global Impact Visas, has been the insights gained from a talented pool of globally minded entrepreneurs and investors both from New Zealand and from overseas. These conversations have helped to shape a new type of visa concept that is more flexible than those that other countries offer. I have nothing but great things to say about Immigration New Zealand, Government agencies and organisations like Kiwi Connect who have been providing insight on how to create a new high value solution.

As I spend time on the West Coast of the US, some of my entrepreneur friends who live in Silicon Valley and LA find themselves stuck because they dropped out of university (or never even started) in order to pursue their tech creating dream.  This is great until you see the points system that our immigration systems rate you on which focus points on how much work experience you have, how many tertiary degrees you have and how much money you have, which scores unfavourably for many incredible young tech entrepreneurs.  We only have to look at our current non degree holding home grown stars, Sam Morgan, Peter Beck and Sir Peter Jackson to see that our current scoring system can let incredible people fall through the cracks.

Peter Beck has the potential to be one of the worlds most globally impactful entrepreneurs, but would he make it to New Zealand with its current immigration visa process? (Image Source)

Peter Beck has the potential to be one of the worlds most globally impactful entrepreneurs, but would he make it to New Zealand with its current immigration visa process? (Image Source)

This programme will need to find a way to rank potential candidates on merit, which can include their local and global impact potential. As the ranking system is developed, I think it needs to ensure that those who do not qualify under our existing visa schemes, but have potential for impacting New Zealand enterprises, have a visa entry route which recognises their unique skills.

Imagine the mentoring, experience, knowledge and creativity that could take place in local businesses if New Zealand brought in a few highly talented entrepreneurs and investors who already wanted to live here but couldn’t?

One thing I have seen is how fast successful start-ups grow, and the potential that bringing in one key entrepreneur could have in creating many new local jobs.


The concrete jungle that is Silicon Valley is a very different landscape to the greenery of New Zealand (image source)

Everybody knows the name Silicon Valley they know what it does and what type of people live there – if you want to work in tech, you go to the Valley, that’s how strong the brand of a place can be.  The valley however, is a concrete jungle, it’s expensive and some of those in it are starting to look for greener, cheaper options to call home.  As a passionate advocate for New Zealand moving towards high tech, high IP exports, the potential of bringing in some of those tech savvy entrepreneurs moves us closer to that reality of becoming a country with an innovation brand that the word will recognise.

I am proud to be a New Zealander with a passion to increase our country’s economic development in clean, green technologies and really think that, if designed correctly, the new Global Impact Visa could support Sir Paul Callaghans predictions and help “turn this country around”.

Scientists create a new technique to see the first atomic-scale images of nanoparticles

Nanoparticles are tiny structures made up from a few to a few hundred atoms where their shape, size and properties are determined by how the atoms combine together.

There are several ways to make nanoparticles, one of which is to grow them out of metals such as gold and platinum in a liquid. This method produces colloidal nanoparticles which are most commonly used for sensors, catalysts and in drug delivery.

TEM image of gold nanoparticles used in my current research.

TEM image of gold nanoparticles used in my labs research. They have been removed from their liquid and imaged in a dry state due to the vacuum requirements of the microscope.

The problem with nanoparticles suspended in a liquid is that it’s really difficult to view them, as they tend to move around, so instead they are typically dried out which stops the growth reaction.

If you imagine the metal atoms are like individual bricks, its really important how you stack the bricks together depending if you want to build a house or a bridge or an artistic sculpture.  Stacking the atoms into different positions also determines the properties of the final nanoparticle, so being able to see them while they are forming in their liquid is crucial to move the research from trial and error techniques to designing and tailoring individual nanoparticles from the atomic scale up.

This week a collaboration of US scientists published a paper in the journal science showing their new technique known as “SINGLE” which stands for 3D Structure Identification of Nanoparticles by Graphene Liquid Cell Electron Microscopy.  This technique combines three other methods into one and the researchers have proved its power by reconstructing the 3D structures of two individual platinum nanoparticles in solution.

2D image electron microscope image (left) used to create 3D structure image (right). Image modified from original source

2D image electron microscope image (left) used to create 3D structure image (right). Image modified from original source

The three methods which were combined are already complex techniques, so bringing them together was a real scientific advancement.

The first method involves a graphene liquid cell, which is basically a bag that is only one molecule thick with liquid inside it.  The bag can withstand the ultra high vacuum of the electron microscope column enabling the particle to remain in its liquid during imaging.
The second method involves a highly sensitive direct electron detector, which can be used to capture movies of the nanoparticles as they spin around in solution. Basically this is a high speed camera, which uses electrons to make images of the particles.

The third  method uses a 3D modeling technique called PRIME which collates the 2D movies from the electron microscope and turns them into three-dimensional computer models of individual nanoparticles.

You can watch the power of the technique in this video created using it showing a platinum nanoparticle:

This new technique, really opens up the doors for new nanoparticle research and will help nanotechnologists to understand how structure is related to properties, or how one misplaced brick could make or break the wall.

IBM reveals a 7nm chip! Why this is awesome news!

Moore’s Law, which states that a semiconductors’ computing power will double every two years is going to survive for a few more years thanks to the creation of a new 7nm chip!

Released image of 7nm chip prototype Image source IBM

Released image of 7nm chip prototype (Image source IBM)

Thanks to a research team led by IBM, Global Foundries, Samsung Electronics and SUNY a new prototype chip was just announced which is way ahead of the 22nm and 14nm chips currently on the market and features transistors which are twice as small.

What makes these chips different is that they have been made with 7 nanometer transistors which was only functionally possible by replacing the traditional 100% silicon material with a silicon-germanium mixture instead.

The gap between two silicon nuclei is about 0.5nm and at 7nm the gate width became so small that the small number of silicon atoms in the tiny channel just couldn’t carry enough current. The additional germanium in the silicon within the channel resulted in an increase in electron mobility which allowed more current to flow.

The other tweak they made from conventional chips was to replace the argon fluoride laser used to etch out shapes and features (a technique called pattern lithography) which uses a wavelength of 193nm to an extreme ultraviolet lithography technique which can be much more detailed by using wavelengths down to a mere 10nm.

The transistors showing a a 30nm pitch which is the distance between the front edge of one transistor and the front edge of the next transistor. (Image source IBM)

The transistors showing a 30nm pitch which is the distance between the front edge of one transistor and the front edge of the next transistor. (Image source IBM)

Another smart move was to create a structure with incredibly tight stacking resulting in a 30nm transistor pitch which is the distance between the front edge of one transistor and the front edge of the next transistor.  IBM claims that this pitch results in a surface area reduction of “close to 50 percent” over today’s already advanced 10nm chip processes.

Why is this awesome news?

It’s awesome because it means in the future your devices can still become smaller and more powerful.

It’s awesome because its going to help us meet the demands of cloud computing,  big data systems and cognitive computing allowing us to make more scientific breakthroughs.

It’s awesome because this new manufacturing technique has the potential have 20 billion transistors packed into a chip the size of a fingernail, which even as a nanotechnologist I find totally nuts.

It’s awesome because 7 nm wide transistors is the equivalent of three times the width of a single strand of DNA, yes, that’s how tiny 7nm is.

Pretty or smart? Why do girls have to choose?

I have two lives, one as a privileged academic with a job that surrounds me with smart, interesting people and a lab which enables me to create, discover and question.

The other, as Nanogirl, a female in a lab coat who visits schools inspiring curious minds while trying to understand why so few girls want to study science.10547950_736177456446163_8736243428451557995_o

In meeting hundreds of girls of all socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity backgrounds, there seems to be a uniform they all share.  A uniform that includes body image insecurity, worries about dating and the need to fit in.

10897982_852580051472569_6880833753311879098_nOne of my goals as Nanogirl is to help girls to build confidence in themselves and to see how being smart can lead to being successful.  I run superpower leadership talks for teenage girls and talk to them about some of the issues they face.  I learn about who their role models are and become saddened when they say people like “Kim Kardashian” or “Miley Cyrus” because they are “beautiful and rich”.  What I want to hear is that they have female role models who are famous for being smart, but the media isn’t full of stories of those types of women.

The girls tell me that to be successful in life you need to be pretty, and when I ask them about being smart, they say that being smart can make you less pretty as people call you a geek or a nerd.

I’ve asked the girls if they feel pressure not to appear to be “too smart” and they say that they do, especially if there are boys around because they don’t want the boys to be intimidated by them.

One girl said to me “boys don’t want a girl who is smarter than them” as she explained why she acts dumb and like she doesn’t know the answer in class.

Yesterday I was alerted to this image by Villainesse editor Lizzy Marvelly:

CJ1G5emUsAATirHThe image was posted on the instagram account of a magazine which it states is for girls aged 14-17, the same demographic of girls I’m traveling around the country trying to encourage to study harder.

As you can imagine, the flat spot on my head is pretty large from me banging it against the desk after reading this. I decided to divert my energy to something more creative and instead took the image and added a few details of my own showing amazing New Zealand women who have succeeded in a specific subject.

CJ1G5ekUkAAuYmYWhy magazines designed for teenage girls are supporting and sharing images that encourage them not to study I will never know.  I’m not making a direct statement about this magazine but a general one about the media that our girls are surrounded with and shaped by.

Where are the glossy magazine articles of successful women who got there for their brains not their looks?

What language are we using around our girls and are we unconsciously shaping their future?  Although its an advert, I really like how this video shows the language I hear used around girls all the time.

I’m happy for you to call me a geek or a nerd, or as one recent newspaper did, a Techno-nut, but what would make me happier is if we could change those words to represent positive rather than negative attributes, so our girls can grow up proud to be smart.

Oh, and boys (men too), if you wanted to help at all, please share stories of the smart women that have helped to shape your life.