School of Chemical and Physical Sciences

2007 News

Physics Academic Programme Review

11 October 2007

This is the first review of the physics teaching programme since 1993.

The physics group is relatively small but very active, and enjoys an excellent research reputation which is reflected in the quality of its teaching programmes. We conduct excellent research across a wide range of physics disciplines, including solid state physics, soft matter physics, geophysics, electrodynamics and optics, quantum theory, and astrophysics, and covering both theoretical and experimental aspects. In many areas our research success is linked to the presence of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology which has been hosted by and closely linked to the School since 2003. The physics group also has an active outreach programme that includes teacher liaison, school visits, and the maintenance and continual updating of a website of physics demonstrations.

In recent years we have seen a steady increase both in the number of students taking 100 level physics, and in the numbers enrolling in the physics major of the BSc degree. That this is in contrast with a national trend of decreasing physics enrolments reflects extremely well on the physics programme at VUW, although the national trend must continue to be seen as a concern. Furthermore, we continue to have a major concern over the decreasing preparedness of students in mathematics. We also face significant challenges as the new Bachelor of Engineering is progressively implemented over 2007-2010.

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Top Young Victoria Scientists Recognised in Major Awards

22 June 2007

Two up and coming Victoria PhD students have been recognised at the prestigious MacDiarmid Young Scientist of the Year Awards held in Auckland recently.

Simon Rogers and Conrad Lendrum (pictured left and right respectively) were named runners-up in the Understanding Planet Earth and the Future Science and Technologies categories respectively. Both are PhD students in the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences and each received $2500.

Mr Lendrum's research into bio-mineralisation, the process by which nature produces hard and complex materials such as bones, shells and teeth, offers huge potential to the New Zealand economy.

The process is so far unrivalled in artificial or synthetic technologies, and to find out exactly how nature does it, Mr Lendrum is studying model systems based on the sea urchin, or kina, and coccoliths – protective plates grown by algae.

His research shows that the cell membrane could play an important role in the formation of hard mineral crystalline structures and that by changing the membrane chemistry the crystal structure could also be changed.

“Ultimately we can use this knowledge to understand exactly how our bodies form bone,” he says, “but beyond that it also offers potential for a paradigm shift enabling the creation of complex structures similar to those found in nature for use in industry and manufacturing.”

The research of Victoria's second successful student Simon Rogers was described by the MacDiarmid judges as a cutting edge study that has thrown into question the accepted definitions of solid and liquid states by showing that a star polymer system can be both states simultaneously.

He has developed a scientific theory to explain the "astounding experimental data" he has recorded and used it to make testable predictions.

His research examines the way a star polymer system suspended in solvents responds to strains and stresses. The ‘stars’ are provided by scientific collaborators in Greece and resemble tiny koosh balls. When constant shear stress is applied to the stars, the sample behaves as a liquid for about two hours before rapidly stiffening into a solid.

“It is a weird phenomenon to have something which can be at the same time solid and liquid. It changes scientific thinking by showing the co-existence of solid-like and liquid-like behaviours and not just characteristics that are an average of the two,” Mr Rogers says.

The theory he has developed to explain his findings, together with a number of theorists from the United Kingdom, is based on a previously published framework by two French scientists.

Victoria hails MacDiarmid CoRE funding

5 June 2007

A significant increase in funding for the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials & Nanotechnology, hosted by Victoria University, has highlighted its success as a Government-funded Centre of Research Excellence (CoRE).

The Minister for Tertiary Education, the Hon Dr Michael Cullen, today announced funding of $31.4 million of operating funding per annum for six years for seven Centres, and one-off capital funding of $20 million.  The funding will go to six existing Centres and one new one.

The MacDiarmid Institute, named after Victoria alumnus and Nobel Prize winner, the late Professor Alan MacDiarmid, is to receive $39.1 million in operational funding for 2008-14 and capital funding of $9.8 million.  The Institute is hosted by Victoria in partnership with other New Zealand universities and Crown research institutes.

Acting Vice-Chancellor, Professor David Mackay, said the funding recognised the significant successes the MacDiarmid Institute had achieved in its first six years of operation.

"The Institute's researchers are undertaking exceptional research in the physical sciences.  Under the able leadership of Institute Director, Professor Paul Callaghan, the team at Victoria and at our partner institutions are pushing the boundaries of knowledge in new materials and nanotechnology as well as establishing a fertile training ground for New Zealand's future physicists."

Professor Mackay thanked the Government for its ongoing support for the Institute.

"A review of the MacDiarmid Institute by the Tertiary Education Commission in 2005 highlighted it as an exemplar and Dr Cullen's comments today, praising it and Professor Callaghan, are particularly heartening.  Victoria and its partners look forward to working with the Government and Commission in ensuring that the Institute remains at the forefront of innovative scientific research."

Institute Director, Professor Paul Callaghan, said the capital funding would be put to good use.

"That the Institute managed to pick up almost half of the capital funding on offer is an amazing achievement.  Only last year, for example, Dr Pablo Etchegoin, who has recently been appointed as Victoria's inaugural Professor of Nanotechnology, led a team that developed a method of detecting and tracking single molecules using Surface-Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (SERS). Their research provided the most conclusive experimental proof so far on the detection of single molecules with this technology and the capital grant will allow the Institute to buy the latest in SERS equipment. 

"And last year Professor Richard Blaikie, at the University of Canterbury, was recognised by New Scientist magazine as providing the first convincing experimental evidence for negative refraction, a key optical effect in new nano-engineering methods. Now the University of Canterbury can undertake a major upgrade to their nano-fabrication facilities to world-class levels. In all the capital fund will enable the purchase of nearly 30 new instruments at Victoria, Canterbury, Massey and Otago universities.

Professor of Nanotechnology appointed at Victoria

29 May 2007

Victoria University scientist Dr Pablo Etchegoin has been appointed as its first Professor of Nanotechnology.

Dr Etchegoin, who is currently an Associate Professor in the School of Chemical & Physical Sciences and a Principal Investigator in the MacDiarmid institute for Advanced Materials & Nanotechnology, will take up his new position on 1 July.  He has been appointed after the position was internationally advertised.

Nanotechnology is a field of science and technology that investigates the use of particles and structures in the nanometer size range (one nanometer is a thousand of a micron) and their possible applied use in areas such as industry and medicine.

Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean of Science, Professor David Bibby, said Dr Etchegoin was an outstanding candidate.

“Pablo’s research within the School and the MacDiarmid Institute is of an international standing.  Last year a team he led published ground-breaking research that provided the most conclusive experimental proof available on the detection of single molecules using laser spectroscopy.  He also picked up a three-year Marsden Fund grant worth $735,000 to carry out further research in this area.”

Professor Bibby said Dr Etchegoin’s appointment was a strategic initiative. 

“Through hosting the MacDiarmid Institute, a Government-funded Centre of Research Excellence, Victoria has built on its reputation as a focus for nanotechnology.  The University has decided that if Victoria is to maintain and enhance its strength in the physical sciences, and in nanotechnology in particular, such an investment was essential.”

Dr Etchegoin, who joined Victoria in 2003, holds an MSc from Balseiro Institute in Argentina and a PhD from the University of Stuttgart in Germany. 

His research interests include the study of optical methods for the detection of small quantities of molecules and the study of single molecules by laser spectroscopy.  A particular interest is in the use of Surface Enhanced Raman Scattering (SERS) in its various implementations with a view towards applications in a biological context.

Dr Etchegoin has strong research links with Imperial College in London with both the Physics Department (Blackett Laboratory) and the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, as well as with the National Physical Laboratory in Britain

Nobel Laureate Presented Seminar Dedicated to Alan MacDiarmid

26 February 2007

Professor Jean-Marie Lehn - Nobel Laureate in Chemistry 1987, Université Louis Pasteur, Strasbourg and Collège de France, Paris - presented a seminar on self-organization in nanoscience and nanotechnology on Monday 26 February dedicated to Professor Alan MacDiarmid.

Jean-Marie Lehn has developed the research field of supramolecular chemistry at the interface of chemistry and biology. It concerns self-organization processes, making use of molecular recognition to control and direct the spontaneous formation of functional architectures of high complexity.

Realizing that recognition implies information, Lehn's work led to the concepts of molecular programming and of programmed chemical systems, undergoing self-organization on the basis of the molecular storage of information and its processing at the supramolecular level through algorithms defined by the specific features of the intermolecular interaction patterns involved in the system considered.

These investigations provide steps towards a progressive understanding of the passage from condensed matter to organized matter, of which living organisms represent the highest expression. They seek to lay the chemical, molecular and supramolecular foundations on which the highly complex events of biological self-organization are built and to provide means for analyzing their mechanism as well as for acting on them.

Professor Ian Paterson of the University of Cambridge presented his recent studies in the synthesis of cytotoxic marine polyketides.

Marine organisms provide a prolific source of natural product structural diversity, with an increasing number of associated polyketide metabolites found to be potential lead structures for the development of novel anticancer agents. However, the natural supply of these compounds is usually extremely meager and inadequate for full biological evaluation and preclinical development.  In addition, the full stereostructure may not have been determined, necessitating synthetic efforts to firmly establish the structure and provide a sustainable supply.

Recent work directed towards the total synthesis and sterochemical assignment of antimitotic macrolides of marine origin will be presented, focusing on our studies on dolastatin 19 and spirastrellolide A.  Spirastrellolide A is a potent and selective inhibitor of protein phosphatase 2A – isolated by Andersen and co-workers from the Caribbean sponge Spirastrella coccinea.

New Chemistry Contact for School Outreach Programs

February 2007

Suzanne Boniface has been appointed ‘Senior Fellow’ in Chemistry. She will be taking responsibility for the Chemistry Outreach Programme. She will be looking for ways to enhance the opportunities currently provided by SCPS for both Senior and Junior Science students to experience practical workshops in University laboratories. She will be exploring other ways of supporting the teaching and learning of Chemistry in schools and is particularly interested in developing new ideas for student investigations possibly linked to the CREST award.

Suzanne has a PhD in Chemistry from Auckland University, has taught Chemistry at both secondary and tertiary level and was previously Head of Science at Queen Margaret College in Wellington. Her chemistry education interests include finding stories that link chemical principles and theoretical ideas to the ‘everyday experiences’ of students, tracking student misconceptions and finding ways of dealing with these and exploring the power of visualisations in teaching and learning chemistry.