Sally Brooker.
Sally Brooker.

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

Sally Brooker is a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Otago. Her research can be broadly classed as transition metal and macrocyclic chemistry, but it covers everything from photocatalytic generation of hydrogen and green polymerisation catalysts, to single molecule magnets, and spin crossover complexes.

Prof Brooker has been a lecturer at Otago since 1991, and has taken multiple sabbaticals to overseas labs. She has also received numerous awards, including the 2003 Distinguished Young Chemists Award (FACS), the Maurice Wilkins Centre Prize in 2009, and the 2015 University of Otago Distinguished Research Medal. She was invited to become a Principal Investigator in the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology in 2006, became FRSNZ in 2007 and FRSC in 2011. Earlier this year, Brooker was included on the Queen's Birthday Honour’s list (MNZM), and went on to receive the Burrows Award (RACI), and the Hector Medal (RSNZ).

Laurie Winkless spoke to Prof Brooker about her background, her research, and her approach to collaboration.

Why chemistry?

I’ve always been inspired by what nature can do, and my childhood, spent on a country farm, meant that I grew up in a very ‘natural’ world. I went to the local area school which was small but we had excellent teachers. One in particular got me really excited about chemistry – he was a computer science graduate but he seemed to love all science, and his enthusiasm was infectious.

I’ve been obsessed with colour all my life – I remember potassium permanganate from school, as you can keep adding water but it retains its vivid purple shade. I thought that was beautiful. We also reduced vanadium through its oxidation states, stopping to admire each unique colour. I can still remember one day, sitting on the step with our teacher, talking about how plants can produce oxygen from water, and the thought of all this chemistry going on around me just blew me away.

Did you then go on to study it at university?

Sort of. I actually applied for the trainee teacher scheme, because I loved to teach, and that also required me to study for my BSc at the University of Canterbury. I was accepted onto that, and signed up for ‘engineering intermediate’, because that covered chemistry, physics and maths – the subjects I most enjoyed – and kept my options open.

Moving to the ‘big city’ of Christchurch was a huge step, but because the teacher training terms were longer than the university ones, I had time to settle in and make friends before facing the first day of lectures. At the end of my first year, I had to pick my major. I loved chemistry and maths, but advisors recommended I study chemical engineering. In the end, I went with where my heart lay, and that was in chemistry. I first heard about the possibility of being paid to do a PhD while I was working on my final year project. I loved being in the lab, so my immediate response was, “where do I sign?” At that point, I pulled out of the teacher training program, and started down the University academic route.

So what happened next?

I did my PhD with Professor V. McKee at Canterbury, and loved it. At the end of the three years, I knew that I wanted to continue combining research with teaching, and the only way to do that was to get some international experience, before trying to get a lectureship back in NZ.

I got very lucky with that. Prof George Sheldrick, an international expert in crystallography, had visited Canterbury during my PhD. He offered me a postdoc position in his group at Göttingen Universität. He always kept it to about a dozen people, and they were all wonderful. Though he was British, the group was completely operated in German. I’d done a 2 week crash course in the language, which was useless – so I learned German through being immersed in it! I hadn’t ever planned on learning a new language, but found it was a real buzz. I think it’s important to have time away early in your career – you learn new science, and get a different perspective on your home country. I also got a glimpse of how a large research group operated, made lifelong friends and met future collaborators. It was a fantastic experience.

When did you return to NZ?

Six months into my postdoc, the job here at Otago was advertised. I felt it was too soon, but my mentors were very supportive, and Otago did seem like the ideal place. By the time applications closed, I was able to put a convincing package together. Just prior to Christmas, I was offered the job, and managed to negotiate a delay so that I could spend 18 months in total in the Sheldrick Group. I arrived in Dunedin in 1991, and have worked at Otago ever since.

What are the major themes of your group’s research?

A theme that runs through all of my science is putting metal ions into just the right environment to make them do weird stuff. That might be switching – redox reactions, spin crossover, single molecule magnetism – or catalysis, fluorescence, etc. We’re working with Prof Charlotte Williams (Oxford) on a catalyst-based approach to producing compostable bioplastics. And our work with Prof Garry Hanan (Montreal) is exploring photocatalytic hydrogen production from water. We’ve recently screened seventeen of our cobalt complexes, and all are active catalysts for the reaction, so we’re putting a paper together on that. I’ve a new PhD student who will try to improve on those, and a postdoc who will explore how we can attach the best of our current catalysts onto a range of solid supports.

Spin crossover is a really hot topic internationally – one major goal is to be able to predict the spin state, and tune it controllably, rather than it being a guessing game. We’ve just had a paper accepted in JACS that reports on our new approach to tuning spin crossover in solution, and we are really excited about its potential! We're certainly going to do a lot more on this in the next few years, including further theoretical modelling work with my colleague Dr Anna Garden.

What are your secrets to running a productive, supportive research group?

Well, it’s not necessarily just a box of fluffy ducks the whole time. Ambitious research projects are challenging and people inevitably have ups and downs, so we definitely go through tough periods! But I think that talking to each other is key – usually, problems are caused by miscommunication or a lack of communication, so I try to encourage my team to be open, honest and kind –  and to have a ‘can do’ attitude! It’s also important to recruit outstanding people, who fit into the group well, and add something new to it. I have just had four PhD students start over the last four months – they’re from all over the world and have hit the ground running, which is fantastic. It’s always wonderful to have new faces and new energy in my team, but I’m also really lucky to have very experienced, productive students and postdocs powering forwards, some of whom will graduate soon.

You also collaborate with several international groups. Is NZ’s ‘remote’ location ever an issue?

Hmm, well if I were based in Europe, it would be easier to share samples – we could catch a train to another country to do some measurements. But, as a result, I’d probably also spend a lot of time in meetings of the relevant consortia – whereas over here, I get to spend more time actually doing science. So I think there is a plus and a minus to that access.

Honestly, our location has worked well for us. It probably helps that New Zealand is beautiful. Collaborators are attracted to the science first, but the fact that it’s also a great country to visit is definitely a bonus! We’re involved in some incredibly fruitful collaborations – I’ve known and worked with Prof Annie Powell at KIT for many years – that relationship has always been a total pleasure. I also love working with Prof Charlotte Williams at the University of Oxford, Prof Garry Hanan at the University of Montreal, Professor Roberta Sessoli at the University of Florence, and many others. These are all great collaborations, really productive and enjoyable – and they’ve all become my friends.

That’s a key thing for me, and probably for other academics. If you work with people you click with, on a topic that you love, you very quickly build a relationship based on mutual respect and friendship. And it goes beyond the research. I think about the people who’ve come through my group over the years as my chemistry family – I’m so proud of them and what they go onto achieve in their lives and careers.