an interview with superstem’s demie Kepaptsoglou
How it Works interviews one of the scientists behind the project to uncover the universe’s atomic secrets
There must have been some incredible things you’ve seen under these microscopes. What has been your favourite?
There’s so many! Graphene, obviously. I remember the first time I looked at graphene. That was very cool because it’s just a single atom thick and I was able to distinguish each atom. But also we have a collaboration with colleagues in Germany and they bring me meteorites that have travelled the universe – some of them are 4.5 billion years old. I was surprised to find out there is organic material in meteorites – there is this theory that it could be how the first organic matter came to Earth. There is a saying we have: ‘We are investigating the universe, one atom at a time, but it might take us a while to get there.’
What is the importance of understanding the materials around us on an atomic level?
Do you remember the phone batteries that were exploding? These are batteries that are very, very small but are as powerful as a computer ten years ago. Obviously there was some fault in the production but it might not have been large at all because the products are so small now. We don’t realise how much work and research goes into our everyday products.
Are there any advancements that you are excited to see in the future that will need electron microscopes?
I think drug delivery systems that will involve atoms and subatomic particles. There has been research into attaching magnetic nanoparticles to drugs so that they can use a magnet to guide the drug where they need it, [towards a] tumour or something.
Are nanoparticles dangerous to our health? Can you use electron microscopes to investigate this?
Yes, I was involved in an atmospheric study and they were collecting nanoparticles on the side of the road. They were determining what kind of nanoparticles were in our air and they found a lot of iron oxides coming from the brakes of cars. Understanding what things look like and how they act is very important to understanding the impact [of small particles] on health.