Award-winning research shows crystal-clear view of materials science

30 Nov 2018

Dr Sithara Sreenilayam Pavithran (centre) receiving her SFI Research Image of the Year 2018 award. Image: Jason Clarke Photography

Dr Sithara Sreenilayam Pavithran speaks to Dr Claire O’Connell about her research into liquid crystal materials.

Researchers get to see all sorts of cool things. Some watch as signals come in from outer space, some gaze down a microscope at the inner workings of cells and some watch the mesmerising changes that materials undergo as they morph through different phases.

For Dr Sithara Sreenilayam Pavithran, the phase changes of a liquid crystal material provided a beautiful image that earlier this month scooped the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Research Image of the Year award at the SFI Summit.

Phase changes

‘Liquid Crystal Seashore’ shows a stunning gradient of changes as liquid crystal material morphs due to temperature changes, its molecules rearranging to form distinct microscopic patterns.

It’s one of many beautiful images that Sreenilayam sees in her work, where she is looking at the properties of liquid crystal materials that could be used in displays (LCDs) and for medical technology.

The black, yellow and orange colours of a liquid crystal cell appearing like a seashore.

The SFI Research Image of the Year. Image: Dr Sithara Sreenilayam Pavithran/DCU

“We can see lots of liquid crystal materials around us. They are used in digital displays, and in nature these are the materials that give butterflies and beetles and peacock feathers their beautiful colour changes,” she explained.

“With liquid crystal materials, we have lots of phases that move between crystal and liquid, and with different temperatures we can see different phases. So, when we put the material between glass plates and apply temperature changes, we see the phases using a polarising optical microscope.”

The award-winning image shows the transition from the isotropic to the nematic phase, and the ‘bubbles’ are thread-like defects that emerge during the phase changes as the molecules rearrange relative to one another.

The seashore-like arrangement was one that Sreenilayam saw while she was working at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) on materials for applications in fast LCDs. “We know the materials have particular properties under different conditions. I was looking at how to optimise these conditions,” she said.

She now works at the Advanced Processing Technology (APT) Research Centre in Dublin City University (DCU). Prof Dermot Brabazon, the director of APT and deputy director of the SFI I-Form Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, encouraged Sreenilayam to enter the image for the SFI competition. “He forwarded me the link and said yes, I should go forward for it,” she said. “He is very supportive.”

Crystal-clear view

Today, Sreenilayam’s work as centre manager at APT sees her coordinating researchers from across disciplines and schools in DCU to work with technologies such as 3D printing for various applications.

She began her scientific career in her native India, and moved to Dublin Institute of Technology to do her PhD with Dr Yuri Panarin. While there, she developed her interest in liquid crystal materials. “I got the opportunity to do a PhD here on liquid crystals and when I met my supervisor first, he was sitting in front of the microscope and he was very excited about the way the molecules were moving in the material,” she recalled. “Then, when I started to study the area, I started to feel a similar excitement. I could see the beauty of it.”

Following her PhD, Sreenilayam spent a year teaching in India before returning to Ireland to do postdoctoral research at TCD with Prof JK Vij, where she made discoveries about new structures in liquid crystals. She moved to DCU last February and she now hopes to build more of her own research on liquid crystal materials for use in medical technology.

Find your inspirations

Sreenilayam is thankful to all the mentors and supervisors who have inspired her journey in research so far, and she encourages young people with an interest in science to find people that motivate them and even look online for TED talks about subjects that interest them.

“Where I grew up in southern India, it wasn’t really the done thing for girls to go and study and to work abroad,” she said. “But I was inspired by the people that I went to work with, and they have encouraged me to keep going, and now I know I am in the right place to expand my studies.”

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication