‘Theoretical and experimental research thrive when carried out in tandem’

11 Apr 2023

Dr Cara-Lena Nies and Prof William Scanlon. Image: Gerard McCarthy

Dr Cara-Lena Nies discusses the importance of computer modelling for successful research and experimentation, and how she ended up working on photonics theory at the Tyndall National Institute.

Dr Cara-Lena Nies has had a busy year. She recently graduated with a PhD in engineering science and earned a postgraduate diploma in innovation, entrepreneurship and commercialisation during her studies. Nies’ PhD research demonstrated that new materials can be discovered by computer simulations, when she discovered a new material that can extend the use of copper as a conducting wire in miniaturised electronic devices.

If that wasn’t enough, she was also awarded the Tyndall Publication of the Year and a Wrixon bursary for research excellence. Prof William Scanlon, Tyndall CEO, described Nies as a “worthy winner” of the Wrixon prize, explaining that its aim is “to continue to nurture, develop and retain our ground-breaking researchers”.

Nies now works as a postdoctoral researcher in the Photonics Theory group at the Tyndall National Institute in Cork. This research group studies “emerging materials areas and device concepts for next-generation devices”.

‘I’m a firm believer in open science’

Tell us about your current research.

I’m currently modelling the effects of boron doping in semiconductor nitride materials for applications in both deep-UV and red LEDs. Deep-UV LEDs have many applications particularly in sterilisation and disinfection, while efficient red LEDs are notoriously difficult to manufacture but are necessary for computer and phone screens.

This project is a great opportunity for me! I get to apply the expertise I gained in materials modelling during my PhD, but I’m also learning new skills and get to collaborate with other researchers in Tyndall who are working on the experimental aspects of the project.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Boron-doped nitrides are of great interest in the nitrides community, but they are also a relatively new set of materials.

My work focuses on understanding the fundamental physics of introducing boron dopants into nitrides. The insights from my modelling can then inform the corresponding experiments.

Additionally, I can respond to specific issues observed by our experimental collaborators. Results from my models can explain growth mechanisms or underlying effects that may not be observable in experiments, which in turn might help to adjust the experimental methods to achieve a specific material composition.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I don’t think I had much of an idea of what ‘doing research’ actually entailed until I had several conversations with one of my lab demonstrators (who was a PhD student) during my third year as an undergrad about how he got his position.

He suggested that if I was interested, I should look into doing a summer research internship with one of our lecturers. I did end up doing an internship and after those two months, I was hooked.

I still never would have considered doing what I do now, until I attended lectures with my future PhD supervisor. He taught us about quantum chemistry and the basics of modelling.

From my internship and final year project, I knew that I was trying to understand why exactly things turned out a certain way – which isn’t always possible with experimental work – and suddenly there was this other branch of chemistry where I could try to understand what was happening in a system, down to a single atom.

So, I sat there and thought that if I went into theory I would never have to wonder again why an experiment turned out one way and not another. It’s obviously not nearly as straightforward as that, but it was definitely the right decision for me. I love my work and I’m excited to keep learning and find more questions to answer.

What are some of the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

One of my biggest challenges as a researcher in theoretical materials science is often in communicating with other researchers who do experimental work.

There seems to be some misconceptions about the usefulness of modelling, while in actuality both theoretical and experimental research thrive when carried out in tandem.

I think this can often be due to a lack of familiarity with the capabilities of modelling, so I try to help this by highlighting what I can do at conferences and by talking about my research career to students who are visiting Tyndall and are interested in pursuing a PhD.

Do you think public engagement with science has changed in recent years?

I think the media coverage of the development of the various Covid-19 vaccines has highlighted what a research process can look like.

I also hope that it has made people more aware of the dangers of misinformation and the importance of fact-checking.

I try to highlight my work through various public engagement opportunities, for example by taking part in the Tyndall events organised for Culture Day each year. I’m a firm believer in open science, so all of my research is available open access for anyone to read.

10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.