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Source: MIL-OSI Submissions
Source: University of Canterbury

Two outstanding University of Canterbury researchers are among the ten nationwide who have been awarded 2019 Rutherford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowships

The two-year Rutherford Foundation Fellowships seek to build human capability in research, science and technology by supporting early career researchers.

Royal Society Te Apārangi President and Chair of the Rutherford Foundation Trust, Professor Wendy Larner FRSNZ, said the Society was pleased to award fellowships and scholarships to these outstanding early-career researchers.

About the research:

·         Dr Azadeh Hashemi, University of Canterbury, for research titled: Developing a simple and effective method for directing the differentiation of stem cells in the lab

The development of humans and animals starts from a mass of stem cells that change, eventually, into all the different cells that make up the structures of an adult organism. During development, a number of chemical and physical signals produced within the embryo determine what cell types stem cells change or differentiate into. The chemicals secreted from neighbouring cells in contact with the stem cells and the direct communication through the cell membrane can be the source of some of these signals. The movement of the embryo through the development process, causing mechanical strain, can also be another identifying factor in stem cell differentiation. The signalling activated by all these processes will ultimately lead to gene activity and the determination of cellular differentiation.

Stem cell biologists have been trying to direct stem cells to differentiate into specific cell types by mimicking embryonic environments in-vitro. The benefits of this would include being able to produce cell types useful for studying treatments for diseases or for tissue repair and cell-based replacement therapies. Currently, stem cells need to be cultured under very controlled conditions in order to direct their differentiation. This process is time-consuming and expensive, and still does not guarantee the differentiation of stem cells into certain cell types of interest. In the past decade, manipulating cell-culture substrates – the material that the cells grow on – has gained renewed interest as an alternative strategy to standard methods of controlling cell behaviour. Micro- and nano-scale cell-like patterns on the surface of cell-culture substrates are one way of manipulating cell-substrate interactions and influence differentiation outcomes for stem cells.

In her Rutherford Foundation fellowship, Dr Azadeh Hashemi aims to develop a new generation of in-vitro cell-culture substrates that will not only lower the cost of directed stem cell differentiation, but also increase the accuracy of the differentiation process and the range of differentiated cells. Dr Hashemi will be investigating the use of cell-imprinted substrates – 3D replicas of live cells or tissues onto a rigid material – for culturing stem cells. The physical and mechanical properties of the substrates will also be adjusted to better guide differentiation. The cell-imprinted surface features, which look exactly like cells, combined with other material properties will allow her to create a cell-culture substrate similar to cells’ natural environment. She hypothesises that this type of substrate will achieve a more desirable outcome in stem cell differentiation.

·         Dr Rodrigo Martinez Gazoni, University of Canterbury, for research titled: Novel and easily-scalable metamaterials for energy and environmental applications

Transparent conducting oxides are exceptional materials because of their optically transparency and high electrical conductivity: two properties that are almost never found together in nature. This unique combination of properties could lead to the development of a bevy of new technologies with the potential to reduce the impact of our increasing demand for energy and resources on our taiao environment. While transparent conducting oxide films are a fundamental component of LED screens, scientists have only begun to explore what other technologies might take advantage of these materials. Exciting potential abounds, including transforming any window into a transparent solar cell, new air purification products, and self-powered smart windows and displays. When combined with nano-engineering, the potential for these materials expands into environmental applications such as photo-degradation of contaminants, capture of pollutants, and industrial waste management.

Dr Rodrigo Martinez Gazoni’s new postdoctoral research aims to develop novel transparent conducting thin-films and nanostructured materials based on metal oxides, and to explore their potential applications. He will first develop affordable, environmentally friendly, and scalable protocols to fabricate transparent semiconducting films based on gallium-, tin-, and zinc-oxides. Then, using organic molecules as templates, he will tailor the nanostructure of these films and use them as the building blocks of nano-structured metamaterials. The specific optical and electrical properties of these materials will be customizable for different applications, depending on the templating molecule chosen and on the nanostructure created. Finally, Dr Martinez Gazoni will use the nano-structured transparent conducting films to produce electronic devices including diodes and transistors, and materials capable of manipulating light in the nanoscale to enhance the performance of solar cells.

This project will expand our understanding and control of transparent conducting oxides, enabling the development of a wide range of environmental, energy, and industrial applications. The development of this innovative and scalable approach will bridge the gap between fundamental research and industrial applications and has the potential to contribute to the socio-economic growth and well-being of Aotearoa.

MIL OSI