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Nano-scale science helps prize-winning Otago scientist make a big impact

Clocktower.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

A University of Otago scientist at the forefront of developing applications from tiny science to powering a new technology sector has won the 2017 Prime Minister’s MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize.

Dr Carla Meledandri who lectures and leads a busy chemistry lab at the University, was presented with her $200,000 prize by the Prime Minister at an event in Wellington today.

She is exploring ways to solve problems using ultra-small materials that look, act, and react differently when they are reduced to the nano-scale.

Carla Meledandri small
Dr Carla Meledandri, Department of Chemistry, University of Otago.

Early applications of her award-winning science include silver nanoparticles to treat and prevent dental disease, and finding ways to store and use clean energy technologies that have the potential to replace fossil fuels.

Silver nanoparticles developed in her lab are being incorporated into a range of breakthrough products designed to fight tooth decay and infection, through a start-up company she co-founded, Silventum Limited, and a technology licensing deal with a multinational dental company.

“In all cases with dental decay, the source of the problems is bacteria,” she says.

“Our technology treats the bacterial source of the disease, without staining teeth. It’s particularly exciting because of the growing problems with resistance to antibiotics, which are the usual treatment for bacterial infections. Our nanoparticles have a completely different mechanism that doesn’t allow them to become resistant.”

She says tooth decay is one of the most prevalent chronic diseases in the world and the products being created through her science offer a new solution. In addition, they have the potential to make dental care more affordable, through the availability of reliable treatments that don’t require repeated trips to the dentist.

Also at the cutting edge is the current focus of her fundamental science research, in which she is developing nanomaterials for use in industrial applications such as gas capture and storage, which can potentially assist to mitigate global warming.

It is estimated that the separation, transportation and storage of gases currently accounts for up to 15 per cent of the energy consumed globally. With energy demand steadily rising around the world, she says environmentally friendly clean fuels, such as hydrogen gas, offer huge promise, but only if they can be stored safely, efficiently and cheaply.

Her research team is investigating ways to capture and separate the greenhouse gas CO2 using nano materials, enabling its removal from the atmosphere.

Dr Meledandri’s entrepreneurial eye and her commitment to partnering fundamental science with applications that solve problems were highlighted by the prize judges as standout strengths.

A meeting with Dr Don Schwass from Otago’s Faculty of Dentistry at a speed collaboration session for academics led to a long-time partnership that Dr Meledandri says is pivotal to the success of the dental technologies they have developed.

“Don had run his own practice for 20 years so he was all too familiar with dental diseases and the fact that most current treatments deal with the symptoms not the cause. It was having his practical knowledge feed into the research that has been critical to its success.

“Knowledge of the underlying fundamental science enables us to create things on the applied side and the applied science reveals problems that the fundamental science can solve.

“I’m definitely happiest in the lab but I recognise that the science can’t go anywhere without spending time pursuing funding and establishing strong relationships with partners and investors.”

Dr Meledandri, who is also a Principal Investigator for the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, was joint winner of the Norman F.B. Barry Foundation Emerging Innovator award in 2016.

She grew up in Minnesota, United States, and completed her PhD at Dublin City University before joining the University of Otago.

She credits the spirit of collaboration amongst New Zealanders as central to her success.

“It doesn’t exist other places in the same way—the connections, the opportunities to engage with other scientists and being able to establish a start-up company in a supported environment.

“I feel very privileged to be able to work in New Zealand and to have my research group’s work recognised in this way.”

She intends to invest the $150,000 of the prize money available for further research into her group’s clean energy programme.

“I am particularly motivated by service-science where my chemistry can help solve a problem.”

The 2017 Prime Minister’s Science Prizes, administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand, were presented to winners on 13 February 2018 at the Banquet Hall, Parliament Buildings, Wellington.

Visit the Prime Minister's Science Prizes website for more on the prizes

YouTube link to the above video interview

For more information, please contact:

Dr Carla Meledandri
Department of Chemistry
University of Otago
Phone: +64 3 479 7918
Email: cmeledandri@chemistry.otago.ac.nz

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