Digging Beneath the Surface

bismuth ferrite
Chiara Gattinoni with models of Multiferroika. (Photograph: Florian Bachmann)

Chiara Gattinoni’s specialism is the surface properties of materials. In ETH’s Materials Theory Laboratory, her research focuses on bismuth ferrite, an extremely promising new material.

Digital data is vital to Gattinoni’s work. With the help of her computer, the ETH scientist explores the properties of materials found in our everyday environment. “Our knowledge even about commonplace substances such as water or widely used materials like lubricants is still very incomplete,” says the 33-year old scientist to explain her fascination with this particular field of research. “Although we know that lubricants do their job, we are not sure how and why. In a similar vein, we know that ice forms from water, but we only have a very limited understanding of the structural process involved.”

Her goal is therefore to increase our understanding of materials and explore their function. Since September 2016 Chiara Gattinoni has been engaged in research as a postdoctoral assistant at the Materials Theory Laboratory headed by Professor Nicola Spaldin. Her specialist area is the study of the surface properties of bismuth ferrite, one of the most promising multiferroics discovered by Professor Spaldin’s group.

Multiferroics combine numerous properties: they can simultaneously be ferromagnetic and ferroelectric, making them suitable for future use in  computer memories, for example. In October 2017 Gattinoni’s work led to her being awarded a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship, with which the European Union honours international and cross-sectoral research by scientists looking to progress their work in another country. “Nicola Spaldin has given me fantastic support and I got started with her even before the grant was awarded.”

Hidden secrets on the surface of materials

“The surface is where one material meets another – frequently triggering chemical reactions and changes at the molecular level,” Gattinoni explains. To model these changes accurately, the scientist enters into the computer the properties of the materials and the parameters of the experiment in question in order to simulate how the materials might interact with each other. Her calculations are based on the laws of quantum mechanics.

“The advantage of computer-assisted materials science is that we can even capture and describe reactions on the nano level. On top of that, it is often more cost-effective than performing an experiment in a laboratory,” Gattinoni says. Even using computers, however, a single computation process can take anything between several hours and a few days. If her calculations suggest new scientific discoveries, the researcher reviews the results with her colleagues, who then conduct the actual experiment in the laboratory.

Move to Zurich

Eighteen months ago, Gattinoni and her husband came to Zurich with their daughter Olivia, now two years old. Her husband, Philip Howes, is also a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellow and works at the Biochemical Engineering Laboratory at ETH Zurich. So that both parents can work, their daughter attends the university’s creche on the Hönggerberg campus – but only four days a week. “Initially I was keen to work full time, but then I decided I didn’t want to miss out on my daughter’s early childhood,” says Gattinoni, explaining her decision to reduce her work quota to 80%.

Gattinoni and her husband have known each other a long time. “We met while studying physics in London,” she recalls. Britain’s lively capital is one of the favourite cities of the Italian-born scientist, who went to study there after leaving school in Milan. Her parents and younger brother had already moved close to London a year before when her father was offered a job there with a helicopter company.

From bookworm to materials scientist

Originally it did not look as though the young Chiara Gattinoni would ever study physics. In Milan she attended a humanist school, specialising in classical languages. Gattinoni describes herself as quite an introvert child whose greatest passion was reading books. She says that her decision to study physics was down to her physics teacher: “She encouraged me and fuelled my interest in natural sciences,” Gattinoni says.

As so often happens, certain individuals had a big influence in Gattinoni’s life decisions. Her move from pure physics to materials science, for example, was inspired by her physics professor Alessandro De Vita at King’s College in London. “He touched on many different aspects of materials science, and I discovered that even what seemed to be superficially boring materials could actually be fascinating when studied in more detail.”

At the moment Gattinoni only has vague plans for the future. “I can imagine working either in academic research or industry,” she says. During the period 2010-2012 she worked as a software specialist for a financial services company in London, gathering experience outside the world of academia. “The practical application of my research is important to me,” she stresses. “I am a pragmatic person and I’d like to see my work produce some practical benefit.” Until her Fellowship runs out in 2020, she wants to devote her energy to research and enjoying time with her family, as well as hiking in the Swiss mountains. “We’ll wait and see what the future brings,” she says.

Source : ETH Zurich