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Updating the PLOS ONE Nanomaterials Collection – Author Perspectives, Part 1

In July, we updated our Nanomaterials Collection, featuring papers published over the past few years in PLOS ONE. This collection showcases the breadth of the nanomaterials community at PLOS ONE, and includes papers on a variety of topics, such as fabrication of nanomaterials, nanomaterial-cell interactions, the role of nanomaterials in drug delivery, and nanomaterials in the environment.

To celebrate this updated collection, we are conducting a series of Q&As with authors whose work is included in the collection. First out is our conversations with Stacey Harper from Oregon State University, David Estrada from Boise State University and Vernita Gordon from The University of Texas at Austin. They provide thought-provoking insights into the future of nanotechnology, the environmental impact of nanomaterials, new ways in which scientific advances can be shared and disseminated, and how being a researcher means being open to work taking unexpected directions. We will be adding more author interviews over the next few weeks, so please do keep checking back.

Stacey Harper – Oregon State University

Dr. Stacey Harper is a Professor in the School of Chemical, Biological & Environmental Engineering and the Department of Environmental & Molecular Toxicology at OSU.  Studies in the Harper laboratory use rapid assays with whole organisms and communities of organisms to evaluate the toxic potential of diverse nanomaterials, including nanoplastics.  Dr. Harper is the President for the Pacific Northwest Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC), a member of SETAC Nano Interest Group Steering Committee, a leader of the Pacific Northwest Consortium on Plastics, and was recognized by the US National Nanotechnology Coordination Office as one of the outstanding women in nanotechnology in 2019.

Stacey Harper’s paper in the Nanomaterials Collection: Crandon LE, Boenisch KM, Harper BJ, Harper SL (2020) Adaptive methodology to determine hydrophobicity of nanomaterials in situ. PLoS ONE 15(6): e0233844.

What route did you take to where you currently are in your career?

SH: The path was clearly not straight, nor was it really planned.  I found that at every decision point in my career that I would choose the path that I found most rewarding.  Starting my graduate career in comparative physiology gave me a lot of perspective and opportunities to explore the science that I was interested in. I moved into a post-doctoral position with the Environmental Protection Agency and explored a diverse array of projects and was intrigued by the newly emerging field of nanoscience and nanotoxicology.  I enjoy the challenge of finding answers to questions and solving issues that others would pass over for something guaranteed to succeed.

What emerging topics in your field are you particularly excited about?

SH: The application of nanotechnology solutions to nearly all of the issues with water sustainability seems unlimited.  However, with any new technological solution, we need to consider the potential unintended consequences of the materials we design.  It gives me great pleasure to work in partnership with materials designers to ensure that the safety of their products during the research and development phase of product development.  It is extremely rewarding to provide manufacturers with the information they need to make the best environmentally responsible decisions.

How important are open science practices in your field? Do you have any success stories from your own research of sharing or reusing code, data, protocols, open hardware, interacting with preprints, or something else?

SH: Open science is critical to ensuring that information scientists generate are useful to the community of people that need that information.  Data sharing is one of my priorities, as such, I established an open source database (Nanomaterial Biological Interactions knowledgebase, for data from my research group on the toxic potential of a wide range of different nanomaterials that vary in composition, size, shape and surface chemistry.  As a leader of the National Cancer Institute Nanotechnology Working Group, we developed a standard for describing nanomaterial characteristics in a detailed fashion (ASTM E2909-13):

Standard Guide for Investigation/Study/Assay Tab-Delimited Format for Nanotechnologies (ISA-TAB-Nano): Standard File Format for the Submission and Exchange of Data on Nanomaterials and Characterizations

Such standards enhance our ability to share and integrate data across the many diverse fields that make up nanoscience and nanotechnology, which is necessary to advance the field in an evidence-based manner.

If you could dream really big, is there a particular material, function or material property that seems far away at the moment, but you think could be attained in the future?

SH: Point of demand materials that could capture the energy from sunlight, even in low light environments, and convert it to usable energy without the need for energy storage.  Think about a car painted with photovoltaic paint that could do this without the need for battery storage or fuel.  That would be a game changer.

David Estrada – Boise State University

David Estrada received his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2013 before joining the faculty at Boise State University. He is currently an Associate Professor in the Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering and holds an appointment as the university’s Associate Director for the Center for Advanced Energy Studies. He is the recipient of the NSF and NDSEG Graduate Fellowships. His work has been recognized with several awards, including the NSF CAREER Award, the National TRiO Achievers award, and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers Innovator of the year award. He is a Senior Member of the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers and his research interests are in the areas of emergent semiconductor nanomaterials and bionanotechnology.

David Estrada’s paper in the Nanomaterials Collection: Williams- Godwin L, Brown D, Livingston R, Webb T, Karriem L, Graugnard E, et al. (2019) Open-source automated chemical vapor deposition system for the production of two- dimensional nanomaterials. PLoS ONE 14(1): e0210817.

What motivated you to work in this field?

DE: The field of 2D materials is a rapidly expanding and exciting field. The ability to control the properties of materials based on their chemical composition, atomic thickness, and by surrounding environment is fascinating to me. Understanding how to leverage these attributes for specific applications is both intriguing and rewarding.

Nanomaterials research has increased in popularity over the past few years as a research topic. Do you envision that the field can continue to grow in this way, and do you see any challenges on the horizon?

DE: Absolutely. With the discovery of 2D materials and their heterostructures, pioneered by Geim and Novoselov, there is a lot of room for growth in the field of nanomaterials. I believe the greatest opportunities for discovery lie at the nexus of artificial intelligence, computational materials science, and applications in microelectronics, quantum computing, and biotechnology. The biggest challenges will be in developing scalable and reliable synthesis methods to fully leverage the unique physics and chemistry of nanomaterials.

Can you tell us about an experience during your research, whether in lab or at the computer or in conversation etc., where something finally clicked, or worked?

DE: One of my favorite memories as a graduate student was being in the lab and imaging power dissipation in graphene transistors via IR microscopy with our Postdoctoral Scholar – Dr. Myung-Ho Bae. We were able to electrostatically control the temperature distribution in graphene transistor, which was a direct observation of tuning the Fermi level across the band structure of graphene. It was truly exciting to be among the first in the world to observe such phenomena in a material that was only 1 atom thick!

Is there a specific research area where a collaboration with the nanomaterials community could be particularly interesting for interdisciplinary research?

DE: I personally believe that energy, water, and healthcare will present some of the greatest engineering challenges in the future. Understanding how/if nanomaterials can help solve some of the pressing challenges in grid level energy storage, water purification, and regenerative medicine will require teams of interdisciplinary STEM researchers working alongside policy makers and social scientists. As Herb Brooks told the 1980 Men’s US Olympic hockey team, “Great moments are born from great opportunity”. That is what scientists have today, an opportunity for enormous societal impact by leveraging our collective expertise and knowledge to solve these grand challenges. If we are successful, history will recognize our generation as a great moment in time that changed the course of civilization.

Vernita Gordon – The University of Texas at Austin

Vernita Gordon is an Associate Professor in the Department of Physics at University of Texas at Austin, where she has been on the faculty since 2010.  Her research group studies biofilm-forming bacterial systems, with a view toward understanding how physics and biology interplay and how they impact disease course.  She did undergraduate work at Vanderbilt University and graduate work at Harvard University, as well as postdocs at University of Edinburgh and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.  She likes doing science, most of the time.  She also likes running, science fiction, singing, knitting, and spending time doing fun things with her family.  She wishes the pandemic were over already.

Vernita Gordon’s paper in the Nanomaterials Collection: Kovach K, Sabaraya IV, Patel P, Kirisits MJ, Saleh NB, Gordon VD (2020) Suspended multiwalled, acid-functionalized carbon nanotubes promote aggregation of the opportunistic pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa. PLoS ONE 15(7): e0236599.

What’s your favourite thing about nanomaterials?

VG: I’m not really a nanomaterials researcher.  I’m a biological physicist, with my roots in soft-matter physics, but I keep bumping up against nanomaterials in random ways.  I think my favorite thing about nanomaterials is the way their small size gives rise to applications that wouldn’t be possible for the same material in a larger size.  I’m thinking here of nanoparticles for drug delivery (I work a lot with pathogenic biofilms, which tolerate a lot of conventional antibiotic treatment, so people have to put a lot of creativity into finding ways to treat biofilm infection) and the work we recently published in PLOS ONE, which started when we were wondering how stray nanomaterials in aqueous environments might affect the mechanical strength of biofilms, and wound up with the unexpected discovery that suspended nanotubes can promote bacteria aggregating into sort of proto-biofilms.

Have you had any recent surprises in your research, where the outcome wasn’t what you had expected?

VG: Yes.  This happens all the time.  It is far more common for me to be surprised and a project take a direction that I had not anticipated than it is for everything to move forward steadily the way I thought it would.  The PLOS ONE paper I mention in my previous answer is one example of this.  Of the roughly 20 papers I’ve published since starting a faculty position, I think maybe 4 told the story I had anticipated when starting the project.

Did you have to adapt your work in light of the pandemic, and if so, how?

VG: We first had to shut down our research labs completely, I think for 2-3 months, and then we were allowed to re-open slowly, at very limited capacity.  I had graduate students who were not able to be in the lab for months.  To deal with this, we started a new modeling project, to study biofilm growth and mechanics in vitro, with colleagues at University of Edinburgh.  We also greatly extended a modeling project that we had started before the pandemic, so that what had been a small side project for a student became his only project for nearly a year.

What do you see as the big opportunities for research dissemination in your field, or how science is communicated in general?

VG: I think more-informal communication is becoming increasingly important, both for scientists learning about each other’s work and for the general public.  Platforms like Twitter and Facebook can rapidly spread “snapshots” of scientific advances, with the possibility for interested parties to dig much deeper into the actual research publication (things like Instagram and whatever else the young people are using can probably do that too, but I’m not on Instagram or TikTok so I haven’t experienced that directly).  This is one of the major ways I learn about scientific papers that I should read.  I think there’s a gap between the social-media “snapshot” and the thorny research publication that still needs to be filled with good communication of science to the general public.  YouTube and blogs seem good for this, and are already doing some good things, but I’d like to see even more of this.  One thing the pandemic has really shown is that we need to do a better job of communicating, to a broad audience, how science is done and what science is saying.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by contributors are solely those of individual contributors, and not necessarily those of PLOS.

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