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Take 10 with Dr Michel Nieuwoudt

Dr Michel Nieuwoudt from the School of Chemical Sciences

Dr Michel Nieuwoudt, from the School of Chemical Sciences, gives us 10 minutes of her time to discuss her research about measuring energies in molecules by irradiating them with light to determine the detailed composition of complex fluids like milk or biological tissue samples.

1.      Describe your research

Revealing the information hidden in materials using light.

2.      Now describe it in layman’s terms!

I measure the energies in molecules by irradiating them with light at different wavelengths between the visible and infrared regions. The techniques used to do this are Raman and InfraRed spectroscopy. My research focuses on transforming the complex spectra representing these energies, and large datasets, into knowledge and insight, using chemometric approaches (data exploration, classification and quantification. The powerful combination of chemometrics and spectroscopy allows us to rapidly interrogate materials, instantly revealing their properties and behaviour. For example using these methods we can determine the detailed composition of complex fluids like milk (nutritional and animal health information; adulteration detection) and biological tissue samples such as skin lesions (identifying and typing for malignancy).

3.      Describe some of your day-to-day research activities

Currently I spend most of my time analysing the spectra recorded from milk and from skin tissue, both very complex materials. This involves examining the peaks occurring at the energies of light absorbed by the materials: their intensities and frequencies. Spectra are like cryptic maps filled with clues that tell a whole story about the material. I additionally use multivariate statistical methods, or chemometrics, to extract and interpret the information about the material hidden in these spectra. This can allow us to measure what types of components are present in the material and how much of each is present. I also supervise and mentor postdocs and students in the same. One of my favourite distractions is collaborating with the conservators at the Auckland art gallery Toi a Tamaki, and Te Papa in Wellington, analysing the pigments and media in paintings – some of these painted by New Zealand artists and some 19th century works.

4.      What do you enjoy most about your research

I love my job. I find it fascinating how we can use different light energies to interact with different materials in different ways (lots of instances of “different” here) to reveal detailed information about these materials. We have so much to learn still and improve how we extract this information. It’s exciting how huge advances in semiconductor technology worldwide, are providing new photonic and optical materials that allow us to build smaller and more efficient devices to provide and measure these energies, while at the same time huge advances in computer power, machine learning algorithms and artificial intelligence allow us to interpret the data from these devices.

5.      Tell us something that has surprised you in the course of your research.

I first became involved with spectroscopy and chemometrics when doing my MSc, which focused on a rare form of calcium carbonate, called vaterite; the more commonly known one is calcite. I was surprised at how much information about even a few grains of this rare compound could be revealed from Raman and infrared spectroscopy, and even more surprised at how chemometrics could reveal information we would not be able to see just by looking at the spectral data. Since then, I’ve been amazed at how the rapidly advancing capabilities in data storage, data algorithms and manufacturing technology have allowed us to analyse even more complex materials, using smaller and more compact instruments.

6.      What questions have emerged as a result?

Can we use these technologies to contribute to better health outcomes? Can we learn more about complex materials like milk, bone and biological tissue using spectroscopy? Could the tricorder in Startrek become a reality? These questions have led to our new Smart Ideas project of developing a novel handheld device that doctors can use to instantly and accurately diagnose skin cancer.

7.      How have you approached any challenges you’ve faced in your research?

One thing about finishing a PhD is that it teaches to you carry on through obstacles in research later on: when experiments or equipment don’t work, not to stay derailed but get back on track and stick with it. Also, being aware of what the results are telling us, which may not always be what we intended! Usually, it’s the last haul that’s the hardest – finishing off a paper, or completing the last details of the experiments. Another thing I’ve learned is to regularly liaise with colleagues/peers: you always get great insight into your work from incidental chatting at tea breaks, or after-work OGH beers!

8.      What kind of impact do you hope your research will have?

New Zealand currently as the highest incidence of skin cancer in the world. Prevention and early diagnosis is key to reducing these statistics. I hope that the handheld device that I’m working on developing will enable more health professionals and clinics, particularly in rural areas, to accurately and timeously identify melanoma. Especially being able to do this affordably, and without the need for invasive biopsies which may often be unnecessary, would encourage more people to have affordable and regular skin checks.

9.      If you collaborate across the faculty or University, who do you work with and how does it benefit your research?

Vibrational spectroscopy can be applied to all materials, like minerals, diamonds, polymers, food, milk, biological tissue, plants, paintings and even ancient starch grains! So I‘ve been lucky to collaborate with people from the faculties of medicine, engineering, arts and with other departments within the faculty of science like the schools of geological and environmental science, biology and physics. One need to use different methods to analyse each type of material, and learning more about each specific material and what each different groups is looking for always cross pollinates: this enables me to offer new ideas and more insight into each project.

10.  What one piece of advice would you give your younger, less experienced research self?

Share your ideas and results with your research group, don’t be afraid to ask questions if you don’t fully understand, and always be open to querying and questioning your own results. And find a good mentor!


Read more about our research in the Take 10 with... series