Professor Cinzia Casiraghi leads a laboratory specializing in graphene and other 2-Dimensional materials at the University of Manchester (United Kingdom), with which they manufacture photodetectors and electronic memories by means of ink-jet printing. Getting up to this point has not been an easy task for this Italian engineer, as she explained during the meeting Women in Graphene held recently in London.
On the occasion of International Women's Day and the European Graphene Flagship initiative, around 40 European female scientists gathered in the British capital last March 8th to celebrate and discuss their role in the development of a two-dimensional material with unique properties: graphene.
One of the speakers at the event, named Women in Graphene, was the researcher Cinzia Casiraghi (Milan-Italy, 1975), who leads the Nanoscience and Spectroscopy Lab at the University of Manchester. Her lecture was entitled Adventures of a female scientist in Flatland.
What have been your professional adventures?
The research career is like an iceberg: people see the successes from the top, but not all the hard work, the sacrifices, the failures and the disappointments that lie beneath. In my case, although focused on the field of materials with carbon, I have a fairly interdisciplinary background, and that is not always appreciated in some environments. I obtained my degree as Nuclear Engineering in Italy in 2001, then I obtained my PhD in Electrical Engineering from the University of Cambridge, followed by a position as junior group (related to Physics) at the Free University in Berlin. And I am now full professor at the School of Chemistry at the University of Manchester. Throughout this time there were difficult decisions, like leaving Cambridge, for example, or deciding between important options.
What do you mean?
As a researcher I had two options: to stay in the same department and group, or to establish my own group somewhere else. In the first case it meant to stay in an established laboratory, with nice equipment, in a famous university, where you know everybody, every facility and so on; but it is going to be difficult to gain independence and recognition. On the contrary, creating a new group meant starting from scratch, from an empty laboratory, to look for facilities, with limited money; though with independence and complete freedom. I chose this option at the end, but it was the most difficult moment of my career. Although earning respect as an independent researcher within the community still is one of the most challenging tasks, even with an independent lab.
And what is the most rewarding moment in your professional life?
It is when people recognize your work. The most rewarding is to receive messages of support and gratitude from colleagues and students. For example, recently I received a message from an undergraduate student to thank for my lectures on graphene, stating: "I have never been so interested in lectures since many years - well done!". Or when a colleague wrote me, "Cinzia, you fully deserve the ERC grant for your hard work, and I am very happy for you, you are a great model for all of us."
This prestigious European grant, with almost 2 million euros, is for your project Nucleation of Organic Crystals onto 2D materials (NOC2D). What are its objectives?
It is a ‘blue sky project’ (with applications that are not apparent), where I would like to use graphene as template in order to understand, and therefore control, the nucleation of organic crystals in liquids. Despite several studies, it is still unclear yet how molecules in solution start interacting to form a crystal. This process is however of fundamental importance in several fields, such as in the food and pharmaceutical industries. My project will mostly focus on graphene, but other 2D materials are currently very interesting (such as dichalcogenides) because they could be used in applications where graphene is not suitable. Indeed, in nature there are hundreds of layered materials that can be exfoliated to the single-layer level, giving rise to a 2-Dimensional material.
Is this your line of research?
Currently I have three research lines. One is dedicated to the characterization of 2D materials by Raman spectroscopy –a technique used to characterize nanostructures– in particular with the aim of helping the industry to improve the standardization of graphene-based materials. The second one is related to the development of inkjet printable inks made of water-based 2D materials (not toxic) which, as the parts of a LEGO, can be injected together to create a wide range of flexible devices, such as arrays of light detectors printed on silicon and plastic, as well as logic memories (devices used to store information in form of binary code). This breakthrough was published in February on the journal Nature Nanotechnology.
Photodetectors printed in a plastic material and logical memories (with binary code of zeros and ones) created with 2D materials like the graphene. / Casiraghi Group / Univ. Manchester
Finally, I have just started the NOC2D project, where I aim at combining the knowledge and skills gained in the first two projects to investigate the nucleation of organic crystals in solution.
It is one of the projects of excellence of the Graphene Flagship, the largest European research initiative. What would you highlight about it?
Usually, it takes many years for a new material to be optimized and implemented into real products. The Graphene Flagship initiative is helping at accelerating the use of graphene in commercial products by coordinating all the major European scientists working in the graphene field and by promoting collaborations with companies.
When will we see the first applications of graphene?
Some are already here. For example in various composites, sensors and RF tags (radio frequency emitters). I also know that in China you can buy a graphene-mobile phone. As mentioned already, we should take into account that it is normal for a new material to take several years to be optimized and integrated into a specific application. Probably the main challenge is to develop mass-production techniques suitable for electronics, which requires high quality materials.
What is the situation of women in this field?
I have seen an increase in the number of women working on graphene at the student and postdoctoral level in the last 10 years; however, this increase is not reflected in the number of female group leaders and professors - indeed, the number of female speakers who get invited in major graphene conferences is very low, typically below 30%. Clearly there is still a lot to do to support and promote the career of women, in particularly in the University. In general, I think there is rather limited visibility for women working in the field of new materials for disruptive technologies.
How can Brexit affect European projects in the UK, and your life in particular?
It is difficult to say at the moment. We still do not know whether the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union will affect British universities and how the process will be, or how it will impact on access to EU funding. Certainly, it is not ideal to work with such uncertainty, in particular if one has family in England, as is my case. Some years ago an inspirational woman, who has been the first female Institute Professor at MIT, Prof Millie Dresselhaus, told me: “Family is very important because it will be always there to support you, even in difficult times”. Having the support of your partner, your kids, close friends, etc – people who really care about you - is superimportant to move forward, also in your professional career.
Scientists layer graphene and other 2D crystal inks (tungsten disulfide or WS2, and hexagonal-boron nitride or hBN) with their deposition techniques in a similar way to stack bricks of Lego. The result is a ‘heterostructure’ that you can use to create devices with a specific purpose. / Credit: Casiraghi Group/Univ. Manchester
SINC produces scientific news for the European project SCOPE, coordinated by FECYT and funded by the European Union through Horizon 2020, its funding program. The SCOPE mission is to communicate visionary research results of partnering projects in the framework of the Graphene Flagship and the Human Brain Project, as well as to enhance the FET Flagships partnering environment in the European Union.
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