A thoroughly modern researcher

The nanoworld is incomprehensible. The world of research is a closed shop. These are just two of the preconceptions that Chris Ewels has set out to demolish. In addition to his scientific work, this 36 year-old British researcher from the VideoSphere generation manages the highly visual communication aspects of the European Nano2Hybrids project, with eight participating European laboratories. He sees research as a living adventure, and filming its daily progress as an object lesson far more instructive than most lectures.

Carbon nanotube. © Chris Ewels
Carbon nanotube. © Chris Ewels
Chris Ewels: “It is true that some scientists find our way of using images rather crazy…” © Irene Suarez-Martinez
Chris Ewels: “It is true that some scientists find our way of using images rather crazy…” © Irene Suarez-Martinez

In 1989, when Chris Ewels entered Oxford University (UK) to study metallurgy and materials science, the nanoworld was still in its infancy. Although Harry Kroto had already discovered the astonishing geometrical structures of fullerenes, he did not receive the Nobel Prize until 1996. “During the first year of studies, the university taught only traditional materials. I like atoms, crystals – the symmetries and architectures at that scale. I still had no specific ambition in mind, so maybe I would have been just as happy studying physics or astrophysics…” One thing that Ewels is sure about is his love for science as a whole, which goes back to his childhood when he saw it as “a way of asking questions and telling stories.” Travel is another of his passions. Barely had he graduated from Oxford, when he started juggling with bursaries and training placements (and the necessary odd job) to enable him to discover Europe (Germany, Italy, Hungary, Sweden), as well as India, China, Australia and South-East Asia. “Some of these destinations were related to my doctoral thesis; others not. For example, when the Berlin Wall came down, I immediately applied to go and see how this was being experienced in Germany. That was my first experimental trip abroad. I followed this with trips to Italy, Sweden and France.”

Interesting defects

This taste for experiencing other places did not prevent him from working on his doctoral thesis, which he defended at Exeter University (UK) in 1997. “That was a turning point. I am highly motivated by environmental issues and was trying to decide whether to continue in research or to work as a scientist in other organisations, such as environmental NGOs.

I finally decided on a career in research, but the environment is still the driving force behind my work.” It was during his post-doctoral studies at Sussex University (Brighton, UK) that Chris Ewels started work on the computer modelling of carbon nanostructures. “In the early days, scientists were trying to make the most perfect tubular carbon molecules possible, because they had remarkable thermal and electrical conductivity properties. Later we set about examining how defects could impact on these molecules, such as missing atoms or unusual sequences, because we had noticed that certain anomalies could influence their physical behaviour. I find searching for defects interesting because it is sometimes possible to take advantage of them. Although some defects make structures more fragile or make them lose their conductive properties, in other cases the deliberate introduction of impurities can enhance the properties we are looking for. We advance by studying anomalies. It’s a bit like people – without faults they are very boring.”

Immersion in Vega Science

In Brighton, the young Briton met someone who was to be highly influential: Sir Harry Kroto, who had just received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry and was considered to be one of the founding fathers of nanotechnology. Sir Harry not only has an enquiring mind, he is also a remarkable communicator who is passionate about the possibilities for using images to promote the understanding of science. He recently created Vega Science Trust, a foundation that has become an international point of reference and a platform for the audiovisual promotion and dissemination of science, especially via the Internet and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Vega features videos of remarkable interviews with world-famous scientists, as well as quality films, debates, extracts from conferences and a host of other material.

What Chris Ewels likes above all else is images, which play a key role not only in his approach to materials science, but in his life in general. He was born to communicate via audio and, above all, visual media. During the three months he spent in Brighton, he was actively involved in the development of the Vega Science Trust. But what captivated him even more were the new possibilities it offered researchers to engage in visual dialogue, not only among themselves, but with anyone else interested in their work, to discuss what they were researching, good and bad results, and how to cooperate.

Is this a way of bypassing science reporters? “There are some excellent scientific broadcasts and well-structured, well-informed articles out there. The problem arises when, for example, a medium such as television comes under time pressures, with limited programme time and the need for a large audience to attract advertisers, as well as the obligation to provide entertainment. Vega Science Trust programmes, which are produced by media professionals with scientists assisting with the content, are quite another thing. We get right to the heart of scientific matters by pinpointing, with the help of reporters, just what is fascinating about these issues. Although programmes such as ours may seem difficult to some, it is not the number of viewers or surfers that counts but the degree of interest that they arouse in the people watching them.” After his stint in the United Kingdom, Chris Ewels, who married a Frenchwoman, now works at the Institute of Materials in Nantes, France (Institut des Matériaux Jean Rouxel de Nantes – IMN). In 2006, he won a Marie Curie Excellence Award: “Although the award was for research work, I have the impression that my involvement in science communication may have had something to do with it.”

Nano2Hybrids explorers

Chris Ewels’ involvement in science communication goes from strength to strength. Whilst still actively working with the Vega Science Trust, he was one of the founders of the European project Nano2Hybrids in 2007. This project is coordinated by Jean Jacques Pireaux, head of the interdisciplinary research and teaching unit at the University of Namur (BE) (Laboratoire Interdisciplinaire de Spectroscopies Electroniques – LISE). The project brings together eight European laboratories (1) working on research into carbon nanotubes modified using metallic ingredients (and the methods for creating them). The aim is to design detectors for hazardous gases in the environment – in this case benzene. Gas sensors try to take advantage of one of the characteristic properties of nanotubes: their electrical conductivity depends on the gas with which they are in contact. The problem is that the reactivity of nanotubes is quite low. Project researchers are looking for ways to increase their sensitivity.

All project partners endorse the aim of full and continual transparency in their research and activities. The Nano2Hybrids site is listed on the widely-known YouTube video platform. Partners from all over Europe keep a live blog by posting their videos, some showing works in progress, others visiting the lab or filming debates and discussions, bringing to life the climate of cooperation between the teams that are helping to build a common framework. This blog creates a completely new link between the researchers while remaining totally accessible to any Internet surfer from outside the project who is attracted by this original means of communicating science in the making.

Anyone can join the debate, contribute ideas or voice criticism. The researchers have a face and a voice, science is fully exposed, with no idealisation and often with humour. “It is true that some scientists find our way of using images rather crazy… But other projects with a younger generation of researchers are quite at home with our approach.” And citizen net surfers? “Our aim is not to maximise audience ratings.

We want to attract people with inquisitive minds wishing to immerse themselves in the atmosphere of a research team and to make our contribution to the great debate on nanotechnology development.” The site has received some very direct questions about whether invisible, and possibly insidious, nanotechnologies might be harmful to the health. “We are asking ourselves the very same questions.”

Christine Rugemer

  1. FUNDP-Namur (BE), ULB (BE), UCL (BE), IMN (FR), CRP-GL (LU), University Rovira I Virgili – Tarragona (ES), Sensotran (ES), Vega Science Trust (UK).