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

How It Works - - SCIENCE -

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.

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