Perspectives – growing our knowledge

Researcher Profile: Maria Strømme

Every day is used to the max, and training has a key function: ‘The more I work, the more I need to train. And reading fiction or scientific articles on the cross-trainer works fine!’

Millionths of millimetres in mind

Ten years ago, Maria Strømme became Uppsala University’s first professor of nanotechnology. After a decade of acclaim, with successes like 30 patents, more than 200 scientific articles and board membership in a range of national and international research councils, the question is which of Strømme’s career dreams remain.

‘I’m already doing what I want, so there are no dreams of anything else!’ laughs Maria Strømme. ‘That’s why I’m in this job. We’re so focused on research and solving problems that my dreams are realistic, with a bit of luck. They’re based on the results we attain.’

‘We’ are her 26-person research team in nanotechnology and functional materials at the Ångström Laboratory. Strømme arrived here in 2004 after applying for and getting the newly set-up professorship of nanotechnology. Before that her focus was on ions in ‘smart windows’, this too at Uppsala University, where she took her PhD in solid-state physics in 1997.

‘When I was doing my PhD and for a while after that, I did a lot of work on nanophysics and analysed how nanostructures affect the functions and performance of various materials. But then I started working with the pharmacists at the Uppsala Biomedical Centre, and a whole new area opened up. I saw that there were masses of unsolved problems in pharmaceutics that we could solve together, with tools from engineering and physics.’

Earlier in her life Strømme was also tempted by other areas. At secondary school in the Norwegian town of Svolvær in Lofoten, she was at least as interested in mathematics as in physics. The crucial choice of research training can be traced back to her father, a nuclear physicist.

‘Having a father who knows much more than your teachers about science means, of course, that you can get better answers to your questions all through childhood,’ she says. ‘And of course it’s all more fun if you’ve had the chance to get a deep understanding of various subjects in early life.’

Her sisters were also influenced by their upbringing and have chosen scientific careers. One is a mechanical and energy engineer. The other has a PhD in space physics and heads the Stanford Research Institute’s radar facility in Greenland. And if Maria Strømme gets the chance, she likes to arouse other people’s curiosity about science and technology.

‘With education like that, such a huge number of doors open. In discussions with my elder son, who is in his first year at upper secondary school, I realise that in all likelihood he’ll study engineering after leaving school. So my propaganda works on someone, perhaps!’ she says with a guffaw.

The media attention that has accompanied her research success will also, she hopes, give an impetus to course programmes in technology and engineering. She turns down numerous inquiries — ‘especially from TV entertainment programmes where the panel members are expected to be funny’. But she accepted the chance to attend Skavlan, the popular TV talk show in 2011 because she saw it as a chance to make research and technology visible in an exciting context.

‘Sitting next to some cool film star or singer, a scientist can seem to have an awesome, alluring job too. When I’d been on Skavlan, lots of people got in touch to ask me about nanotechnology. So I realised how important it is to bring researchers into a context where they reach an audience that isn’t already familiar with the subject.’

One of the research breakthroughs that have made a big splash in the media is the ‘alga battery’. Strømme’s group started developing this environment-friendly battery some five years ago, using cellulose from the green alga Cladophora. When the scientists combined the algal cellulose with a conductive polymer and filter paper saturated with salt water, they produced an environment-friendly battery with a capacity for tremendously high-speed charging.

‘This algae-based battery project is one of our biggest at present. One line of work is to improve the actual material in the battery electrodes to boost the energy density. Eventually, I think it the battery will be usable in many areas where energy storage isn’t possible to integrate today — areas like packaging materials, textiles and perhaps wallpaper.’

Another breakthrough that has echoed far outside academia is the material known as Upsalite, which was discovered by Maria Strømme’s research group in 2011. The non-crystalline form of magnesium carbonate proved to prevent pharmaceutical drug molecules from crystallising, which therefore makes it easier for the body to absorb medicines.

The unique properties of this substance also include an outstanding capacity to absorb moisture at low indoor moisture levels. This material, dubbed Upsalite, prompted the formation of the Disruptive Materials company in June 2013. Since then, nearly 2,000 interested parties have been in touch asking to test the material. Several of them are world-leading companies in various branches. Disruptive Materials has now embarked on customer projects with some 20 of these.

‘Many technical issues still have to be resolved before we know which projects can go all the way,’ says Strømme. ‘How many drying cycles in a dishwasher can it withstand? Can it be used on a permanent basis in components of home electronic products? Other people want to test Upsalite for cleaning and drying of gases, or remediation after fires and hazardous waste deposition.’

Commercialisation is, however, something Strømme leaves to others — ‘many people do it so much better than me.’ She has no plans to leave academia or Uppsala, although offers of international jobs arrive from time to time. Given that her job is already highly international, involving all the collaboration with partners, brief guest professorships — as at the University of Burgundy in Dijon, France, this spring — have to suffice.

‘I feel that I can focus on what I want from here. I do, of course, work a tremendous lot but, after all, I define the problems I’m going to work on and I’m the one who fills up my own engagement diary. And that’s still the feeling I have: that I’ve got the freedom to do what I want.’

Anneli Björkman

Facts – Maria Strømme

Name: Maria Strømme
Age: 44
Occupation: Professor of Nanotechnology at Uppsala University
Family: husband, three children and a cat
Home: house in Sunnersta
Interests: physical training (running, body building, keep-fit sessions at Friskis & Svettis: ‘I’m an omnivore — lots of it, and regularly!’), mountain hiking, reading (preferably biographies and detective stories)