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Fields & Applications Spectroscopy, Clinical, Chemical

To SERS with Love

How did you get into science?

It may sound strange, but it all started with a bird. I grew up in the Scottish Borders, which is very rural and was an environment dominated by wildlife and farming. One day I found yet another dead bird and decided to dissect it to understand what was inside. I looked into how to preserve organs with vinegar and formaldehyde, and started to get into chemistry from there. Skip forward a few years, and during my PhD in organic/synthetic chemistry I was offered a three-month postdoctoral position at the University of Strathclyde – this turned into six months, then I got a year’s contract, then a five-year fellowship, and finally I was made permanent.

How has your research developed over time?

I started off doing a lot of synthetic chemistry for surface enhanced Raman scattering (SERS) – mainly making new reported molecules with strong surface affinity for silver, and modifying DNA to make it SERS active. Now, we’ve moved more into nanoscience, where we can still make new materials but focusing less on the specific molecular functionalities and more on the optical properties achievable by altering the synthesis of nanomaterials. The work is allowing us to interface with biological systems and biomolecules, as we move towards more challenging environments, including in vivo.

Why is SERS important?

SERS can provide advantages, both in terms of sensitivity and discrimination of signal – but not in every scenario. For example, if fluorescence can be used, why use SERS? However, in situations where fluorescent backgrounds interfere with the fluorescence measurement, SERS can be advantageous. In vivo measurements, in particular, benefit from a SERS base as opposed to fluorescence. SERS has some unique advantages – but have they translated into practical use? We’re getting there; we see SERS being used in a number of lateral flow immunoassays, tagging applications for security and a lot of research into in vivo imaging, as some examples. More scientists are researching SERS and its use and I think more examples will arise soon of where it is addressing unmet needs. Instrumentation has developed incredibly rapidly over the last few years, and the ability to make different enhancing surfaces is now pretty well developed. The biggest challenge is getting people to understand what the technique can do and why you would want to use it; getting it out of the spectroscopic community and into the hands of other people. I think that’s really where it can start to explode.

What led you to found the Centre for Molecular Nanometrology in 2005?

We were looking for a way to harness the relationship between physics and chemistry at Strathclyde, using spectroscopy as a “glue”. In chemistry, we specialized in Raman and SERS, and fluorescence was the mainstay of physics – so we felt we could focus on on optical spectroscopy. We have since made several new appointments and we moved into new laboratories two years ago as a consequence of our growth. The aim of the Centre is to explore the growing area of nanotechnology and its role in molecular biology and medicine. In particular, though, I think the Centre has been a really useful mechanism for bringing on young scientists starting out; people are brought together based on their potential and their “skills fit”. It’s a way of giving appropriate credit, flexibility and support to new staff developing their own careers.

Your career seems to typify multidisciplinary...

The long-term direction of our research is set through the discussions and collaborations we have with the potential end-users of our research – clinical practitioners or researchers. That’s where a lot of our insights into opportunities for analytical chemistry in the healthcare sector come from. We work with Edinburgh University to run a joint center for doctoral training with 60 PhD students, and every student has both a physical sciences and a clinical supervisor, so it naturally brings together those two disciplines. It’s really exciting.

Who do you work with most?

I do most of my collaboration with Karen Faulds. She’s an attention-to-detail sort of person, while I’m more “big picture” and worry about the details later – so it’s a good partnership! She comes from the analytical, spectroscopic side, whereas I started out as an organic chemist, so approach things from the bio/organic side of things. Between us we have a broad knowledge base for this type of research. “Two heads are better than one” has never been a truer adage and allows us to really be creative and innovative.

Are you a big believer in teamwork?

I’ve always been someone who prefers to work with people rather than alone. You need someone to have a laugh with, after all! I’ve captained several rugby teams, and one thing I learned was: you can never ask someone to do something you wouldn’t be prepared to do yourself. I always try to lead by example, which means I have to try to publish the best papers I can, and get the best research funding to keep the group going, to keep the research dynamic, to keep coming up with research ideas... It’s a perpetual wheel of activity.

What motivates you?

Seeing other people come up with ideas that you can help formulate and then carry through to successful outcomes – that is really motivating. And cheese. I love cheese.

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About the Author
Duncan Graham

Head of Department for Pure and Applied Chemistry, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK.

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