Case studies

12 April, 2016

In A Darkened Room The Light Of Discovery

Dr Miryam Arredondo-Arechavala, Centre for Nanostructure

When the famous physicist Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell came back to her native Northern Ireland in spring 2014, it was to take part in a Queen’s University event encouraging other women to follow in her footsteps.

Women in Physics – Ireland was a celebration of the achievements of women who study and work in this traditionally male-dominated discipline.

‘Her talk was inspiring,’ says Dr Miryam Arredondo-Arechavala, joint organiser of the event, which attracted young women from across the island, 70% of them A-level students. ‘It opened their eyes to new possibilities, showed that they can really go places.’

Miryam herself is an outstanding example of someone doing just that. Her journey has taken her from Mexico, where she obtained her first degree – in materials science engineering – to a PhD funded by the Mexican government at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, followed by a postdoctoral period at a Max Planck Institute in Germany on microstructure analysis.

It was when she was back home in Mexico that she learned about an interesting position coming up in Belfast. As a result, in 2012 she joined the Centre for Nanostructured Media at Queen’s as a lecturer in materials microscopy, a post funded by global company FEI, world leaders in this field.

‘I’ve been given the support to take electron microscopy further here at Queen’s. It’s the key tool in this new world of research where everything is at the nanoscale, getting smaller and smaller. To be able to fully understand physical phenomena at the atomic level is crucial.

‘My senior colleagues in the Centre, people like Professor Marty Gregg who mentored me through my probation, have been just fantastic. They push you to achieve more and they keep you on the right track.’ 

Her work has led to joint funding worth more than €1m in a project involving Queen’s, Tyndall National Institute in Cork and the Illinois Institute of Technology to find new ways of harnessing converted energy.

Working with a substance called gallium nitride, Miryam and fellow researchers are seeking to understand the material so that it can be used to convert high voltages to more manageable levels without high-energy losses.

For Miryam, collaboration is key. ‘At Queen’s I strongly believe that we all need to pull together if we are to be as excellent as we want to be. Recently, I’ve been successful in getting involved with colleagues in engineering and chemistry, for example, showing them how microscopy can help and the advantage of using different techniques.

‘I have strong links with other international centres, such as in Toulouse, Eindhoven, Juelich and the national advanced microscopy facility in Daresbury, UK. If I can take projects to other facilities, working with the experts who have the latest equipment, then I’m promoting Queen’s and showing that we are competitive players.

‘When students show an interest in doing a project with me, I always ask – how do you feel about sitting in the dark for hours on end, at a large microscope, trying to reveal the nature of materials magnified a million times? 

‘You may feel you are looking for a needle in a haystack, but being able to see what the world is made of, atom by atom, is just wonderful.’

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