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My Really Small PHD

January 7, 2015

(First published on the Glasgow Science Centre Website)


Throughout my PhD, I was often asked by family members and friends, what it is that I do. As a Chemical Engineer, many would imagine me working with large reactors, in oil refineries or big chemical plants. My PhD project illustrates that not all chemical engineers work with large scale processes; instead, I engineer really small nano-sized motors and so would spend most of my time looking into a microscope.

Nano-motors work in a similar way to larger motor such as cars. They use fuel to move and, in our bodies, even do similar jobs such as transporting important cargo. However the nano-motors I engineer in the lab are made from nano-sized biological molecules called enzymes. Enzymes are important molecules found within the body, which help speed up reactions, such as the break-down of food.




The challenge of working with nano-sized objects is that they are extremely difficult to see because they are so small. So to make them more visible, I stick the nano-sized enzymes to glowing nano-particles (which are a bit like tiny nano-glow sticks). 

Because they now glow the nano-motors can be seen under the microscope. Small objects such as nano-motors are so small that the surrounding water molecules bump into them, causing them to move around in all directions. Because of this, the motion looks very haphazard and random. However, when special nano-motor fuel molecules are added, the ‘powered’ nano-motors are driven along both faster and, if the fuel is arranged in the right way, in particular directions. 



I realise now that to be able to do my research project I needed to gather and combine knowledge I’d learned from biology, physics and chemistry. I’ve learned how biological molecules such as enzymes use chemical reactions to perform important tasks and also about the physics of how nano-sized objects move differently to larger objects.Doing a PhD isn’t all about lab work, some days I would be writing reports or reading the latest research papers at my desk. Other days I would be mentoring younger students in the lab or presenting my work to colleagues. I also have my PhD to thank for the amazing opportunity to travel around the world: in March this year I ventured to Dallas, Texas, where I presented my research at an international conference.As a PhD student I was also involved in many outreach activities, including ‘Meet the expert’ events at Glasgow Science Centre, where I would engage with members of the public about nano-science. I now co-ordinate the Really Small Science group, which is a team of researchers from Strathclyde University. We get together to communicate how small nano really is, through interactive and hands-on experiments. I’ve got a passion for social media and so thoroughly enjoy using Facebook and Twitter as platforms to engage with people about science.


The Really Small Science Group started in October 2013 and since then we have visited many schools and taken part in numerous science events such as the Glasgow Science Festival and Explorathon for the European Researcher’s Night. To find out more about the Really Small Science group you can find us on Facebook and Twitter (@RSmallScience).


About the author: Joy Leckie


Joy currently works as an Outreach and Public Engagement Assistant and also a Technician within the Chemical and Process Engineering Department at Strathclyde University. Joy recently submitted her thesis for a PhD in Chemical Engineering at Strathclyde and will be undergoing her examination later this year, with hopes of graduating in 2015.

Prior to her PhD studies, Joy graduated from Strathclyde in 2010 with a Master’s Degree in Forensic and Analytical Chemistry. The course included a year in industry at Almac Sciences (Scotland) where she was part of a group manufacturing custom biological molecules.

Additionally Joy is a keen science and engineering communicator and STEMM ambassador. Joy currently co-ordinates the Really Small Science group, a group of researchers from Strathclyde, who run nano-themed workshops to illustrate how small nano really is and that nano-sized things can be found all around including throughout our own bodies!

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