Personally speaking with DiStruc Fellows

Since the DiStruc project is coming to an end, the ESRs are wrapping up their research findings and preparing for their next career move. The first DiStruc fellow who has submitted their PhD thesis is Marie Föllmer (Mercader group, ADERA, University of Bordeaux). Maxime Tortora (Doye group, Department of Chemistry, University of Oxford) has finished his research work and is writing up his thesis. Despite their busy agenda, they answered a few questions for us. Enjoy reading!

Marie Föllmer  Maxime Tortora

1. Why did you choose to work on a PhD project with DiStruc? 

After my international and multi-cultural Master studies in Berlin, I was looking for a PhD position abroad, meaning outside of Germany. I liked the idea of living in a foreign country in a research environment. DiStruc was an excellent opportunity for me to combine these aspects: Being part of a network with partners all over Europe involving travelling and cultural exchange and working on a PhD project in Bordeaux fitting exactly to my profile.

Mostly because I found the project interesting! Prior to joining the network, I had been working on the theoretical modelling of living tissues, which introduced me to both the fascinating world of soft-matter and the exciting multi-disciplinary challenges arising from close collaborations with experimentalists. DiStruc seemed like a great opportunity to pursue my research along those lines, and I have never regretted my decision at any point! 

2. What is the main problem your research work attempts to solve?

My research project was focused on lignin as a novel and bio-based precursor material for carbon fibres. Nowadays, carbon fibres are in high demand for composite materials, mostly to save weight by replacing metals. But conventional carbon fibres are too expensive for mass market applications, such as the automobile industry. New fibre materials are needed to solve this problem and especially biopolymers are considered as good candidates. Lignin as highly abundant natural resource and by-product of the paper industry is a low-cost raw material and suitable for carbonization. The main problem is its transformation into fibres, which we try to solve by using a coagulation spinning process.

My work mostly revolves around the concept of chirality, which is the property of an object that is not identical to its mirror image – much like your two hands. Chirality is a fundamental physical feature that is omnipresent at all scales in nature, from the double-helical shape of DNA to the spiral structure of our entire galaxy. However, the detailed mechanisms through which chirality is able to propagate across such extreme length-scale differences often remain poorly understood. During my PhD, I have sought to elucidate how the microscopic properties of individual molecules influence the ways in which they assemble to form some of the larger, organised chiral structures that permeate the biological world – from spider silk and fish scales to human tendons and bones.

3. How does the society benefit from your research?

I hope that one day, bio-based carbon fibres will become a real competitor for conventional carbon fibres and that they will be considered for composite parts, e.g. in cars. Saving weight would not only reduce the fuel consumption, but also decrease the CO2emission of each vehicle. Besides, using lignin for these fibres is a “green” approach since it tailors the valorisation of a waste material. I think these topics are extremely relevant for the future of our society.

More practically, scientists have in recent years become increasingly interested in the design of bio-inspired materials, whose structures and functions mimic those of materials found in nature. In this context, the control of macroscopic chirality has emerged as a particularly promising route for a variety of potential uses. Examples include smart windows with adjustable transparency for energy efficiency, high-resistance lightweight materials for aerospace engineering and autonomous chemical sensors for safety applications. A deeper understanding of the link between microscopic and macroscopic structure would enable scientists to synthesise such systems with higher reliability and efficiency, and would more generally shed some light on the processes that allow living organisms to acquire their shape – with potential applications in the realms of medicine and tissue engineering.

4. Where have you published your research findings?

My findings seemed extremely promising, which is why we were aiming for a patent application prior to publishing. Now that the patent is filed, I am currently preparing two articles which we would like to publish in peer-reviewed journals from my research field.

Our findings have been published in specialised peer-reviewed journals (twice in the Journal of Chemical Physics, once in Molecular Physics). Our latest paper will soon be submitted to the more multidisciplinary Nature Physics journal.

5. Do you have any tips for future ITN fellows?

I think it is important to choose a research topic which you truly believe in and which motivates you every day. You will need endurance and personal strength to carry out your work. Therefore, try to make the most of it, be open to new perspectives and enjoy the period as much as you can.

Perhaps an obvious piece of advice, but find a project you’re truly excited about! A PhD, especially as an ITN fellow, is a very intense experience, and working on a topic that really motivates you will make time (and inevitable difficulties) fly!