Creative collaboration leads to material connections

RESEARCH LIVES: Dr Sinéad Griffin, staff scientist, Materials Science Division and Molecular Foundry, UC Berkeley

Your research is about discovering new materials – how do you do that?

We are looking to develop new materials for micro-electronics and quantum computing, and we are also trying to understand more about dark matter.

To do both, we use a similar scientific process – my group designs proposed theoretical materials in the lab using pen and paper, whiteboard, computer, then we work with collaborators who see if it is possible to make those materials and test their properties.

Several materials that we have suggested have been made by our experimental collaborators, which is really fun.


How did you develop an interest in this area?

I grew up in Rush, Co. Dublin – where the spuds are – and I studied theoretical physics in Trinity College Dublin. As an undergrad, I did a summer internship in the University of California, Santa Barbara, in material theory and design. I just loved that you could make a discovery and you are the first person in the world who knows that. That got me hooked on research.

What is keeping you busy at the moment?

We have been working on topological materials – they have a weird physics that makes them quite robust, they can accommodate quite a lot of atomic disorder and still be useful.

This makes them appealing for quantum computing and micro-electronics. I'm also preparing for a workshop in June in New York for an initiative that I co-founded, where we are building a network for scientists in Africa and the US to collaborate.

Has the pandemic affected your research?

We were lucky in that you can do our kind of work remotely and still be productive, but the in-person collaboration has definitely been missed. For my graduate students in particular, they have missed the important experience of just being around where people are discussing things and they can easily and naturally ask questions as they arise.

You are an artist as well as a scientist – how do the two compare?

The big decision in my life around Leaving Cert was whether I would study art at NCAD or physics at Trinity. I went with physics, but I think science is a creative pursuit anyway, and I use a similar process whether I am working on a calculation or creating art.

It’s about getting familiar with the medium - you have the repetition and frustration when learning a new method or approach - then you get to a level of competence and you can see where it goes from there.

What is your advice for undergraduates for finding their interests?

Summer internships are invaluable. I wouldn’t have been able to navigate doing research otherwise. Neither of my parents finished secondary school, so I had no clear understanding of a career in academia. The internship at Santa Barbara gave me more clarity and built my enthusiasm for and mentors in research.

And finally, how do you take a break from the lab?

I like getting out for a run, but the only thing that occupies my brain fully and gets me away from any thoughts of the lab is painting or drawing. Sometimes I will spend a weekend painting, and the break away from work will have allowed me to get insights into solving problems in science.

Over the pandemic I have also developed a love of knitting. My mum is from Kilcar in Donegal, and she worked in the wool factory so she is an expert knitter. She taught me how to knit properly over Zoom during lockdown. It has been a lovely way for us to connect and to make things.

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation