Diamonds are a scientist's best friend

10 Mar 2016

Author: Imogen Brennan

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Dr Amanda Barnard is one of Australia’s leading scientists and an award-winning researcher with a growing international profile. Her diamond nanoparticle discovery has the potential to change the lives of millions of people around the world.
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Dr Amanda Barnard is the first woman, the first Australian, and the first person from the Southern Hemisphere to win the Feynman Prize for Nanotechnology (Theory) – a pinnacle of achievement in the science world. The Feynman Prize is the latest in an extensive list of prestigious titles Barnard has won, not a bad effort for a scientist who started out in the arts.

“I was in design for years before I switched to science,” says Barnard. “I really enjoyed a lot of the computer-generated art and design things. I eventually found the mathematics and programming associated with that much more interesting than the artistic side.”

A WORLD WANDERER

Barnard speaks with bubbly enthusiasm. Her soft Australian accent with the occasional curled ‘r’ hints at a life lived on many continents. 

With an undergraduate degree in physics from Melbourne’s RMIT University, Barnard went on to do a PhD in theoretical condensed matter physics at the same university. She completed it within 17 months. 

As if the subject matter of her doctorate wasn’t challenging enough, Barnard was living in Canada at the time and commuting back to Melbourne. Toronto, she says, was a brilliant base. 

“I was geographically blessed because I was close to the hub of where the cutting-edge nanotechnology research was taking place. I was only a year into my PHD when I was interviewed for a job, which is one of the reasons I finished it so quickly,” she says.

Barnard got the job within that hub, officially called the Argonne National Laboratory, a US Government Department of Energy lab in Chicago. But after a couple of years, academia was calling again. She moved across the Atlantic to work at the University of Oxford.

“I think one of the great things about science is our ability to travel because science is the same language all over the world. Maths is the universal language that we speak,” she says.

All the while, Barnard was working on a magnificent discovery. Things were about to become mind-bendingly complex. 

A GEM OF A DISCOVERY 

It’s hard to imagine something as tiny as a nanoparticle. Nanoparticles are one billionth of a metre in size and they make up a sort of invisible world. About 15 years ago, Barnard started using supercomputers to study them. It was the most brilliant gem that captured her attention: diamonds.

“I was thinking: let’s try to understand how the different shapes, sizes and structures of diamond nanoparticles can impact their stability and their properties,” she says.

Barnard discovered that diamond nanoparticles have unique electrostatic properties that can repel or attract, similar to a magnet. She also found that their surfaces link up to form a porous aggregate, “like a very ordered sponge”.

Barnard’s research is potentially life-changing for millions of people around the world.  

For example, a study at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) is investigating whether diamond particles can more effectively deliver drugs like chemotherapy, insulin and gene therapy. Barnard’s research underpins this work and her findings could mean that the amount of drugs needed to deliver the same treatment will be about 10 times less.

“We can target the disease better,” explains Barnard. “It’s a slow release because of the porosity of the diamond particles and being able to have something like a ‘chemotherapy patch’ to deliver the drug slowly, over an extended period, will have less side effects.”

It was Barnard’s years-in-the-making diamond nanoparticle discovery that secured her the 2014 Feynman Prize. 

“It’s been great along the way to find out that my predictions have been proven correct,” says Barnard. “But it’s incredibly rewarding to know that the applications it has found are ones that I really believe are going to improve the lives of patients in the future.”

Barnard is the first woman to win the Feynman prize in its 22-year history – a promising development and one that this scientist accepts with deep responsibility.

“It was a bit daunting actually,” Barnard says. “I really did feel incredibly proud that finally it’s gone to a woman – and that woman happens to be me. But now I do definitely feel a sense of duty for the sisterhood, to not let them down.”

BRINGING KNOWLEDGE HOME

A piece of advice Barnard offers to young scientists is to gain experience – both in life and work – by travelling in the early stages of their careers. But she says it’s crucial to bring their learning home. 

After moving back to Melbourne in 2008, Barnard took up a position with Australia’s national science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). She draws on her experience gained from years of working internationally to collaborate with fellow scientists around the world.

“The days of clustering together in one city or one institution – or even one country – are gone. We work globally,” she says.

“Over the years of that diamond project I worked with people in Russia, the UK, Italy, the United States, Japan and Germany. With electronic media these days, we can be in contact every day.” 

Barnard is motivated by the thrill of new discoveries, whether they are her own or those of the research team she now leads at CSIRO. She’s excited about the future; where will her diamond research lead? Will more technological advancements be made possible because of her work? And will more women excel in science? There is much left for her to discover.

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