Microscopy: Expanding the focus
Both world-renowned metallurgists and microscopists, Simon Ringer and Paul Munroe are long-time friends, professional allies, and at times, rivals. They are also BESydney Global Ambassadors and with their powers combined, they helped along the way when they co-chaired the International Microscopy Conference (IMC19) this year.
Microscopy is, in simple terms, the science of investigating objects that cannot be seen without the aid of a microscope. Microscopists generally work to understand the behaviour of various materials – soft, hard, inanimate, living – by exploring the relationships between their structures and properties. But experts Professor Paul Munroe from the University of New Wales (UNSW Sydney) and Professor Simon Ringer from the University of Sydney are thinking bigger picture.
Professor Ringer and his team are currently designing structural alloys that will lead to dramatic eﬃciencies in fuel and CO2 emission. His team are blazing trails on how entirely new alloys can be produced via 3D metal printing, and learning how these processes will enable an era of advanced manufacturing. Professor Munroe, on the other hand, is using a range of microscopy methods to develop novel hard coatings that will enhance productivity in a range of industries, including advanced manufacturing, mining, and aviation.
However, microscopy is not just an enabler for materials scientists. Archaeology, biology, medicine, geology, marine science and many more ﬁelds are deeply reliant upon the insights that the microscope enables. In fact, many Nobel prizes – both recent, and not so recent, are directly linked to the development of new microscopy techniques, or the application of microscopy as the key instrument of discovery.
“Whether in materials science or biomedical science, the application of microscopy enables an understanding of the detailed structure of particular materials. If you can do that, you can learn how to build lighter cars, faster aeroplanes, better pharmaceuticals, and much more powerful computers,” says Paul.
“The world around us works via processes that are happening on sub-nanometre length scales, and at a tiny fraction of a second. We access what is going on at those length scales and timescales via amazing scientiﬁc instruments called microscopes. This is fundamental to how scientists extend their human experience to access those challenging length scales and time scales. This is why the development of new microscopy techniques, or the application of existing techniques is never far from the frontier of most scientiﬁc research endeavours,” says Simon.
In his role as Director of Core Research Facilities, Simon leads the research infrastructure strategy and operations at the University of Sydney, while Paul is Head of the School of Materials Science & Engineering and Deputy Dean (Research) of the Faculty of Science at UNSW Sydney. The pair met "sometime towards the end of the last century" and have stayed in professional and social contact ever since.
While both share a background in materials science, which means they both have a passion for understanding the fundamental origins of how materials work, they diverge in their interests. Paul is currently interested in the enabling technologies around microscopic discoveries - namely focused ion beam (FIB) microscopy - and the teaching of microscopy itself, having received two accolades for the latter; the UNSW Vice‑Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2004 and a prestigious Carrick Citation from the Australian Learning and Teaching Council in 2007.
While Simon is an expert in the resolution of “property conﬂicts” within materials engineering, where the goal is to achieve unique balances in properties that are normally at odds with each other, or not usually present together in the one material. Examples of this are strength and toughness, magnetism and superconductivity, or semi conductivity and electrical conductance.
Despite having individual focus areas, the work between the two shows their relationship is highly complementary.
“Simon and I have known each other for 25 years. We’ve worked together, we’ve sometimes competed with each other but we’re basically very good friends and we work together really well. It’s actually very easy for us to come together and use our individual strengths to produce an outcome,” Paul says.
“There is a terriﬁc relationship between colleagues at UNSW Sydney and the team here at the University of Sydney. Those relationships stem from our passion for doing great research, and realising that there are many ways that we can help each other achieve that. For us, this
really crystallised when ours and several other universities got together to form the Australian
Microscopy and Microanalysis Research Facility (now Microscopy Australia),” says Simon, who served as the Foundational Director.
Paul and Simon are a small-scale example of the collaborative force behind the local microscopy community. The pair have worked on numerous research grants together, including a large number of Australian Research Grants through the Linkage, Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities scheme (ARC LIEF). These help to build capability in tools that examine the microscopic structure of materials in order to create more sustainable, effective and durable results across the building, health and agriculture arenas. One of the more involved projects the two have worked on is the successful bid, alongside BESydney, to bring the 19th International Microscopy Conference (IMC19) to Sydney.
The Australian Microscopy and Microanalysis Society – which incidentally celebrated its 25th
birthday at the IMC19 conference this year - is a national society and the entire community rallied together to make the IMC19 vision a reality. “The Australian microscopy community is a
really strong one, and we are especially excited by the opportunities for our rising local stars to have access to the very best research scientists and engineers in the world,” Paul says.
Paul and Simon's roles as BESydney Global Ambassadors also showcases the duo's unwavering belief in the local research community, and what it can offer globally.
“We are moving the narrative beyond the fact that Sydney has got these nice beaches and a really nice harbour and opera house to one that positions Sydney as an intellectual hub, a business hub, an advanced manufacturing hub and much more –about the way that Sydneysiders are shaping the world,” says Simon.
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