On 16 January 2007, the Materials Science Centreplus of the University of Groningen was able to celebrate for the third time in five years that the institute has been recognized as a top research school.
This is an extremely important achievement.
The Netherlands has only six top research schools and the MSCplus is the only one that is linked to just one university.
In addition to recognition until 2013, there is another reason to celebrate.
The MSCplus is getting a new name – the Zernike Institute for Advanced Materials.
‘The new name states more clearly what we are about,’ says the director, Prof. Jasper Knoester. ‘With Materials Science Centre many people thought of classic materials science, such as metallurgy. This is confusing because our research concentrates solely on new materials, for example plastics that conduct electricity or completely new types of magnets that are important for data storage.’
The new name is linked to the Zernike chair, which is filled by various guest professors. The institute attracts talent from all over the world, as proven by the fact that Prof. R.J. Silbey, currently dean of the Faculty of Science at the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has agreed to be the Zernike guest professor for the first half of 2008.
The name Zernike Institute for Advanced Materials is not just a casual reference to the Groningen Nobel prizewinner Frits Zernike. Zernike studied chemistry, mathematics and physics in Amsterdam. In Groningen he first worked with the astronomer Kapteyn, later he became professor of theoretical physics. Thanks to his invention of the phase contrast microscope, he also contributed significantly to biology and medicine.
Formula for success
Knoester: ‘Zernike is thus the ideal symbol for the multidisciplinary character of our institute. The secret to our success was that we were ahead of the trend. Chemists and physicists, and later also biologists, have been working closely together here for over thirty years. When interdisciplinary research became popular, we could swiftly take advantage. And with cooperation I really do mean cooperation. We actually want to share knowledge and equipment with each other. What’s more important is that we do it of our own volition – it’s not forced on us.’
Knoester regularly notices that young researchers really like the environment. ‘Our PhD students always work in teams where they can discuss their research with each other and with several professors. Elsewhere you can hear people say things like I went to a conference in California and finally I found out what my neighbour is actually doing. That would never happen here.’
Note for the press
For more information: Prof. J. Knoester, tel. (050) 363 4369/4843, e-mail: email@example.com
The Zernike Institute for Advanced Materials houses chemists who make materials and physicists who study the characteristics of the new materials and research the underlying theory.
Important research fields include materials with strongly correlated electrons, laser spectroscopy and hybrid systems – materials which are partly synthetic and partly biological.
Strongly correlated electrons
Knoester: ‘Materials with strongly correlated electrons are materials that do not behave in a “classic” fashion. Superconductors and buckyballs are examples, but also ferroelectric materials that you can use for computer memory and for smart materials that can convert shape change into an electric signal that in turn can be used to reverse the shape change. A lot of research into this is being done at our institute by Dr Beatriz Noheda and Dr Maxim Mostovoy.’
For the research on materials, the institute houses expertise in an important technology – laser spectroscopy. The current dean of the faculty, Prof. Douwe Wiersma, and his team are among the world top in this field and have introduced extremely advanced equipment and new measuring techniques. The shortest light pulse in the world, created in Groningen, even made the Guinness Book of Records. Knoester: ‘I notice in other research institutes that what we do as routine measurements are extremely difficult to realise elsewhere in the world. They just don’t have the equipment or the expertise.’
Prof. Ben Feringa is a shining example from the field of organic chemistry. His research into molecular motors has attracted a vast amount of attention in the world of chemistry. Knoester: ‘An important new project in which several researchers are involved is the development of molecular valves that can be placed into a cell membrane, and then a light pulse or a chemical impulse can open them. This technology could be used to administer medication.’
Another example of a hybrid system comes from the field of molecular electronics, the domain of Prof. Paul Blom. Knoester: ‘We are currently working on making biosensors. They are sensors based on biological concepts, proteins that can recognize substances and then generate a small amount of electricity that can set off a signal.’
This has led to another ambitious undertaking – the construction of an artificial cell. Knoester: ‘And that’s starting from the bottom up. Instead of taking a bacteria and removing what you don’t need, you construct a cell from the bottom up, from its component parts. That way you have complete control of that cell.’
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