#MondayMaterials Episode 22 – Dr Sarah-Jane Clelland
Welcome back everyone. It’s been three weeks since #MondayMaterials met up with Andrew Thomas from Biomaterials, and today we find ourselves back in the same building. This time, though, we’re visiting the Henry Moseley X-ray Imaging Facility (HMXIF) to talk to their Project Officer, Dr Sarah-Jane Clelland.
I was introduced to Sarah-Jane by Chris Blanford, a former #MondayMaterials interviewee. Chris was adamant that she would be a perfect fit for the video interview format and, as you’ll see below, he wasn’t wrong:
Hi Sarah-Jane, thanks for talking us. Could you please describe the research at the HMXIF, for the layman, in ten sentences or less?
Well the research we do in the facility is very wide-ranging. We have a range of x-ray CT instruments, CT standing for computer tomography, and we can use these x-rays to look inside objects.
We work in a range of research areas; we can look at reinforced concrete to look at the network of steel rods inside the concrete, we can zoom in and look at the pores within the concrete, or we can go right down to the nanoscale and look at arteries in your arms and look at the architecture of them to work out how they function.
So we cover a wide range right from engineering materials and through to human biology.
And how could this research benefit the public?
Well materials are used in everything really; we live in a very materialistic world. Materials make the buildings we live in and work in, the objects that we have and the clothes we wear. It’s all materials. And using x-rays we can understand how these materials function. And if we can understand how they function we can understand how they fail. Which means we can design better materials. We can design buildings which are safer, aircrafts that are more fuel efficient; we can design clothes that have tech woven into them.
We can also build better people. Some of the work we do with biomaterials is looking at fillings that adhere to your teeth better or working on sutures that, when surgeons use them to sew people back together, bond with the skin better and improve healing time.
So, you know, the work we do affects everything. Every part of life can be made better by understanding materials more completely!
Brilliant, thank you. And what about your own research? And how did you first get interested in this area?
Well by training I’m an archaeological scientist. So I look at really old objects, things we recover from archaeological sites, and I use instrumental analysis – so things like SEM, x-rays, gas tomography – to understand those objects. So we can understand, from a technological point of view, how people used to make them. Or we can find out how old things are using science.
So there are a lot of things we can answer, using science, about these old objects. It’s slightly more challenging because these objects are old; they’ve aged and they’ve degraded so quite often it’s more difficult to unravel what they were like when they were new. Because, you know, the ravages of age have changed them slightly. But I always enjoyed that challenge.
Sounds like a fascinating field to work in, Sarah-Jane. If we go back even further, then, could you tell us what first inspired your interest in science?
Well it was when I was in primary school and the Lindow Man was on loan from the British Museum and came up to the Manchester Museum. My parents took me to see it. And I remember being absolutely fascinated that this person had survived for so long, you know. I couldn’t get my head around how old he was. And he was still there whole.
And there was a whole display around it where they were explaining how they’d used all these different scientific and forensic techniques to understand about him and his life and what it was like when he was alive. And that just really fascinated me; that you could use science to find out all these things about something that happened a long time ago.
After that we went round the rest of the museum and it was like ‘this place is full of really old things we can find out about’. For me science then became a key that we could use to find out how things worked – whether it was old things or everyday things. And I just thought that was a fantastic tool that I wanted to get involved in.
Great stuff again, thank you. Moving away from work for a question, then, can you tell us what you get up to in your spare time?
I have an interesting hobby; I do archery! I enjoy it because there’s a sort of ritual in the movements, you’re always doing the same thing, and you just need to focus on the target. That’s nice. I find it helps me to unwind.
Plus it’s always quite an interesting talking point when people ask what I do, because I think most people would like to have a go. But they don’t always feel it’s available to them. It was something I picked up at university, but yeah, it’s fun.
Well, I think you’re our first archer! That’s exciting. We did interview the wonderful Rhys Archer, of course, but I don’t think that counts. Just one last question, then; could you tell us how being here in Manchester has benefited your work and research?
Well there’s been two main benefits for me being here at Manchester, and it’s a bit of a dichotomy. At the one end, The University of Manchester is massive, it’s a really big university and there are lots of different research groups working here. Which is fantastic because there’s a range of activities going on.
But at the same time, the other benefit to me is that it’s still got a real community feel to it. So it’s really easy to go and approach another academic in a completely unrelated research area and talk about maybe collaborating. Which has made my current job really easy. It’s the kind of contrast between the range of research we do and the fact that we still manage, particularly within the faculty, to have this community feeling where people are really willing to engage and work together.
And it’s just been absolutely amazing.
Fantastic, thank you Sarah-Jane. I don’t mind saying that this was one of my absolute favourite interviews of the series so far. It was really interesting to hear from someone who gets to see the world of materials from so many angles, and who also researches something so inherently fascinating! I hope all you readers enjoyed it.
We’ll be with the Design, Fashion, and Business research group in three weeks’ time as we meet with Dr Claudia Henninger. This one has been on the cards for a while and promises to be brilliant, so please check back on June 6th. See you then!