Professor Nicola Susan Jane Gaston

Profile Image


I studied at the University of Auckland and Massey University in New Zealand, and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems, in Dresden, Germany, before I returned to New Zealand to work at Industrial Research Limited, and later at Victoria University of Wellington. I have been Co-Director of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a New Zealand Centre of Research Excellence, since 2018. I was the elected President of the New Zealand Association of Scientists in 2014 and 2015.

In 2015 I wrote a book, Why Science Is Sexist. I might have hoped it was more out of date by now than it is; I'm always happy to talk about these issues with colleagues and students keen to get to grips with the research literature on the topic.


Research | Current

I am interested in understanding the development and variation of physical properties in materials as a function of size, from clusters of a few atoms, to large nanoparticles and bulk materials. My current research is focused on understanding the relationship between electronic structure and properties such as catalytic activity, chemical reactivity, conductivity and thermodynamic stability, and how this relates to the underlying structure (size, shape, composition) of the material.  We use a range of ab initio quantum mechanical techniques to describe electronic structure and the way it depends on the chemical and physical environment.

Particular topics of interest include structuring in liquid metals, in particular dilute alloys, and the electronic structure of superatoms as a starting point for the design of nanostructured materials.


Current Postdoctoral Collaborators

Celina Sikorska is a Postdoctoral Fellow in my group who specialises in the control of electronic structure in nanomaterials, through use of the superatomic concept and nanostructured material deisgn. She collaborates with me on research for the MacDiarmid Institute of Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, and also leads her own programme of research for the Marsden FundSuperatoms: catalysts for CO2 activation. She has funding from this project to support the thesis year of a Masters degree in either Chemistry or Physics at the University of Auckland: contact her regarding that opportunity here.

Charlie Ruffman is a Postdoctoral Fellow funded by the Rutherford Foundation of the Royal Society Te Apārangi, working on a project entitled Flicking the switch to reduce carbon dioxide by melting metallic alloys? This project is in collaboration with Krista Steenbergen of the University of Wellington/Te Herenga Waka.


Recent Research Media

A News and Views piece regarding our work on dilute liquid metal alloys and their ability to self-pattern, Nature Synthesis, Jan 2022. This is subscription content sorry, the free to read link for our article itself is here.

An Editorial in Nature Synthesis entitled All About Alloys is worth a read (and is open access).

Teaching | Current

PHYSICS 334 Statistical Mechanics and Condensed Matter Physics (Stat Mech)


Postgraduate supervision

Students interested in any aspects of my research are encouraged to contact me: Professor Nicola Gaston for further information.  I am generally interested in supervising new students.

Current positions available

A Marsden funded research project, Designing nanopatterns: exploring the "dark world" of binary liquid metals, has a funded PhD scholarship available for a student to work at the University of Wellington with my collaborator Krista Steenbergen, with me as co-supervisor. Contact Dr Steenbergen directly to apply.

A Marsden funded research project, Thinking outside the square! Discovering the design rules for a new class of highly-functional nanomaterials, has a funded PhD scholarship available for a student to work at the University of Auckland, collaborating with the experimental team led by Professor Martin Allen at the University of Canterbury. Contact me directly if interested.

Current students

Stephanie Lambie (co-supervised by Krista Steenbergen, VUW) is studying the dynamics of binary liquid alloys with molecular dynamics methods, aiming to understand the different behaviour of different metallic elements within these alloys. This involves collaboration with CASLEO (UNSW) on migration dynamics, published recently in Nature Naotechnology and on bifurcation dynamics in patterning, published recently in Nature Synthesis. She is also collaborating with researchers at the Freie Universitaet in Berlin, on clustering behaviour in metal catalysts.

Emma Vincent is studying the emergent electronic properties of cluster assemblies, with a view to developing simulation methods that incorporate models of structural disorder in explaining the electron transport behaviour. This project is part of a MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology research programme, on Future Computing based on material reservoirs, with a high-level goal being to create computing hardware that is more energy-efficient.

Recent student-led papers from my group include the following (the student's name is in bold; second-author placement typically indicates a collaborative paper with an experimental group):

Tang, J., Lambie, S., Meftahi, N., Christofferson, A. J., Yang, J., Han, J., . . . Kalantar-Zadeh, K. (2022). Oscillatory bifurcation patterns initiated by seeded surface solidification of liquid metals. Nature Synthesis, 1-12. doi:10.1038/s44160-021-00020-1 Free to read version here.

Lambie, S., Steenbergen, K. G., & Gaston, N. (2021). A mechanistic understanding of surface Bi enrichment in dilute GaBi systems.. Physical chemistry chemical physics : PCCP, 23(26), 14383-14390. doi:10.1039/d1cp01540k

Lambie, S., Steenbergen, K. G., Gaston, N., & Paulus, B. (2021). Clustering of metal dopants in defect sites of graphene-based materials.. Physical chemistry chemical physics : PCCP, 24(1), 98-111. doi:10.1039/d1cp05008g

Lambie, S., Steenbergen, K. G., & Gaston, N. (2021). Modulating the thermal and structural stability of gallenene via variation of atomistic thickness. Nanoscale Advances, 3(2), 499-507. doi:10.1039/d0na00737d

Fiedler, H., Schacht, J., Hammerschmidt, L., Golovko, V., Gaston, N., & Halpert, J. E. (2021). Emergent electronic properties in Co-deposited superatomic clusters.. The Journal of chemical physics, 155(12), 124309. doi:10.1063/5.0060302

Tang, J., Lambie, S., Meftahi, N., Christofferson, A. J., Yang, J., Ghasemian, M. B., . . . Kalantar-Zadeh, K. (2021). Unique surface patterns emerging during solidification of liquid metal alloys.. Nature nanotechnology, 16(4), 431-439. doi:10.1038/s41565-020-00835-7

Anam, B., & Gaston, N. (2021). Two-dimensional aluminium, gallium, and indium metallic crystals by first-principles design.. Journal of physics. Condensed matter : an Institute of Physics journal, 33(12). doi:10.1088/1361-648x/abd3d9

Gilmour, J. T. A., & Gaston, N. (2020). Design of superatomic systems: exploiting favourable conditions for the delocalisation of d-electron density in transition metal doped clusters.. Physical chemistry chemical physics : PCCP, 22(33), 18585-18594. doi:10.1039/d0cp01780a



2018 - current: Postgraduate mentor, Physics

2018 - current: Co-Director, The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a New Zealand Centre of Research Excellence

Committees/Professional groups/Services

2013 - 2015: President, New Zealand Association of Scientists

2011 - 2021: Council member, New Zealand Association of Scientists

2010 - current: Principal Investigator, The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology

2020 - current: Committee member, Stop Sexual Harassment on Campus Aotearoa

2021 - current: Research committee member, Physics


Contact details

Primary office location

Level 7, Room 723
New Zealand

Web links