Volker Nock
Volker Nock

Materials Today meets researchers from New Zealand and Australia who are making waves in the world of materials science.

Volker Nock is Co-Director and Principal Investigator at the University of Canterbury’s Biomolecular Interaction Centre in Christchurch, New Zealand. He’s also a Principal Investigator with the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, and is an Associate Investigator for NZ’s MedTech Centre for Research Excellence (CORE).

Dr Nock’s interests include micro- and nanofabrication, surface patterning, sensing devices, biomaterials, and the application of microfluidics to Lab-on-a-Chip devices. He’s currently involved in a range of research projects, including measuring force patterns in microorganisms, developing molecular sensors, and producing artificial leaves to explore the growth of bacterial species on plants. Originally from Germany, Dr Nock moved to New Zealand to pursue a PhD, and has worked at Canterbury ever since. He has over 45 journal publications and 3 book chapters to his name, and regularly collaborates internationally.

Laurie Winkless spoke to Dr Nock about his background, research, and the challenge of collaborating across disciplines.

Have you always been interested in materials?

Initially I thought I’d study space and aeronautics engineering, but then I found a course with IMTEK at the University of Freiburg. It was a brand-new degree programme, one of the very first to deliberately combine microelectronics, micro-optics, micromechanics and microfluidics. I’ve always been interested in how systems work together, so I thought it would be fun. And it was! As part of my degree, I got an exchange scholarship, and ended up spending a year studying nanotechnology at Flinders University in Adelaide. I found the topic fascinating, and the experience also gave me a taste for international science!

When I got back, I moved to Stockholm to do an internship at a company called XAAR. They were using micromachining to make commercial inkjet print-heads. I was involved in printing conductive polymers for interactive packaging. After that, I went to the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) to do my final year project – there, I worked on developing an actuator to deliver liquid through minimally-invasive drug delivery systems. So, basically finding a way to push liquid through arrays of tiny microneedles. It was very cool.

What prompted your move to New Zealand?

After finishing my degree, I was keen to stay in Sweden for a PhD, but at the time there were no scholarships available. Having enjoyed my stay ‘down under’, I started looking for opportunities in Australia and New Zealand – that’s when I found the MacDiarmid Institute. I wrote an email to Richard Blaikie, who was its Deputy Director. My timing was good – Richard had just started a new collaboration with Tim David at Canterbury, to look at oxygen transport in bioreactors. He offered me a PhD position, and despite never having been to Christchurch, I made the move, and I’m still here, mostly thanks to good luck.

When I finished my PhD in 2009, a professor in the department, Maan Alkaisi, had MacDiarmid funding for a postdoc. I knew the facilities very well by then, and I’d had some involvement with his group, so he offered me the position. At the end of that research, Maan had a Marsden grant, so I stayed on for a second postdoc. In 2012, Richard Blaikie moved to the University of Otago, so the department needed another academic. I got the job.

Is NZ’s ‘remote’ location ever an issue?

It is true that NZ is geographically isolated, and that comes with some challenges, but I think it also provides opportunities that don’t exist elsewhere. When I left Germany, the academic system was based around Chairs, so professors were appointed for life. Junior researchers had very few options other than waiting for someone to retire. Things are similarly difficult in the US. But in NZ, it’s possible to have an academic career and a teaching position without necessarily being in-line for a professorship. That seems like a much better system.

The other benefit that I see is the size of the academic community – you know your colleagues and they know you. And that’s really nice. People here are also very happy to share and collaborate. You don’t generally see the poaching of ideas. The atmosphere is just open.

The only downside for me is funding. Working with European colleagues, you definitely get the idea that there’s a lot more money to go around over there, and that the odds of being successful in proposals are higher. But that’s why collaboration is important.

What are you currently working on?

More and more I’m interested in the interactions between microorganisms and the physical environment. That includes our work on fungal and oomycete pathogens, which has turned into a bit of an obsession. We’ve developed elastomeric micropillars in microfluidic channels that let us measure the forces that fungi exert on the roots and leaves of other plants. We want to take that further, though, so that we can find new ways to protect the plants. That’ll involve looking more directly at the biology of the microorganisms, and at what the fungi is actually doing when it comes into contact with the root.

I’ve also been collaborating with Mitja Remus-Emsermann here at Canterbury. He’s interested in bacterial ecosystems that form on the surfaces of plants, and how they interact. We’ve started replicating his leaves into polymers, forming one-to-one copies that Mitja can use to reproduce natural conditions for the bacteria.

And we do some sensing work too. As part of the SfTI National Science Challenge, we’re working on insulin sensors. Currently, people with diabetes measure their glucose to determine how much insulin they need, but there’s a lag between them, so patients can easily under- or overdose. We’re one of many groups trying to provide an alternative system. Our long-term goal is to combine our sensors with the needle-free injectors being developed by Andrew Taberner in Auckland. And then combining that with the modelling work from Geoff Chase and Chris Pretty – they’ve been very successful at modelling the relationship between glucose and insulin in ICU patients.

Would you describe yourself as an interdisciplinary researcher?

Definitely. I’m an engineer by training, but I’ve always seen engineering as a tool to do science. And I am fascinated by science. I don’t have any biological training, so I rely my colleagues a lot, and I love talking to them about the organisms they work with. I’d say that I’m quite an open person, and am always keen to help and to try new things. I bring my own expertise too, of course – microfluidics is finally past the point of just being a cool technology. It’s now being used to answer scientific questions that might otherwise be difficult to answer, and its applications are starting to appear in high-impact science journals. Basically, it’s an exciting time.

My group is a mixture of biologists and engineers, and they’ve created an environment where they can communicate really well, and learn from each other. I’ve had students that came from a hard-core electronics backgrounds who have started to happily work with cells. And I’ve had biology students who’ve become experts on nanofabrication machines. It’s beautiful to watch.