The travel bans of 2020 have been torture for Professor Francesca Iacopi.
“I hate to be grounded” she says. “Last year has been really hard.”
Now based at the University of Technology in Sydney, Francesca has moved continent regularly throughout her life and career. She was born in Italy, lived with her family in Brazil and France, and since then her career has taken her to Belgium, Japan and the United States before Australia.
As well as moving country, she’s changed career direction a few times too, creating new challenges and opportunities for herself that have ultimately led her to TMOS.
She started in particle physics, but she found herself increasingly attracted to applications, so she turned to engineering, and worked in R & D in the electronics industry.
Despite a successful career in Silicon Valley, she realised she was now straying too far from science. Turning down a directorship in a large multinational electronics company, she decided instead to apply for a prestigious Future Fellowship at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia.
“It was a bit of a leap of faith,” she says. “Since I had no back up plan, I just followed my call.”
But she did get the fellowship and found herself perfectly poised between the theoretical and applied.
“The research path has been long and winding, with more than a few surprises, but ultimately very successful,” she says.
“This is why I like research: If you look hard and analyse the bottlenecks rigorously, you always find a solution!”
To address a long-standing gap, she and her group invented a new technology based on graphene and silicon carbide, which they built into a comprehensive platform that harnesses the scalability of silicon wafers.
Francesca is now building on that know-how in TMOS. After twenty years of turning electronics theory into miniatured devices, she is excited about TMOS’s goal of miniaturising optical components, such as cameras.
“It’s a fine balance, but I’m good at building a bridge between basic science and technology. Transforming basic science into useable technologies is the part I enjoy the most,” she says.
She believes quantum theory’s polaritons – strange hybrid particles that are half light, half matter – are the key for these revolutionary miniature detectors.
Her expertise in graphene is crucial – she plans to harness its amazing properties to create a device which traps infra-red photons as tightly confined polaritons. These tiny hybrid particles would form the basis of highly efficient detectors mere microns thick, that can capture more information from light than just the intensity that current cameras see.
“I’m excited about all the possible outcomes – for example powerful miniature LIDARs to help you see in any light conditions or to help autonomous cars map their surroundings,” Francesca says.
“Or we might have cameras so small that they can go inside a body during surgery and wirelessly send images to the doctor.”
But as ever, Francesca keeps an open mind for new directions that will certainly arise within TMOS.
“It’s a long-term project – a lot of things will happen that we don’t expect!”
Story by Phil Dooley