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Dr Chunchun Li wins the Kathleen Lonsdale RIA Chemistry Prize 2023

01 February 2023

Recent Queen's University Belfast graduate wins prize for best chemistry PhD in Ireland.

Dr Chunchun Li, a recent PhD graduate of Queen’s University Belfast, has been awarded the 2023 Kathleen Lonsdale RIA Chemistry Prize for the best chemistry PhD thesis in Ireland. This prestigious prize is named in honour of the famous Irish x-ray crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale and announced in January every year to mark her birthday.

Dr Li’s PhD research focused on understanding and controlling the surface properties of nanomaterials. Understanding how the surfaces of nanomaterials interact with the environment and chemical substances in the environment is key to designing nanomaterials for use in applications such as sensing and catalysis. The principal technique Dr Li used to understand and control nanosurfaces was surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS) which can give useful information on interactions on nanomaterials’ surfaces.

The basis to studying the interactions between nanomaterials and the environment is to have surface-accessible nanomaterials. Besides putting up a method to synthesize surface-accessible colloidal nanoparticles with required morphology in a bottom-up manor, Dr Li also untangled the role of CTAB in inducing self-assembly of colloidal nanoparticles into multi-dimensional interfacial nanoarrays. This is significant since CTAB is commonly present in nanoparticle colloids but their role in the assembly of colloidal nanoparticles have been elusive.

The success on understanding and designing surface-accessible nanomaterials leads to another ground-breaking discovery of Dr Li’s research, in which SERS combined with surface-accessible nanomaterials were used to reveal the existence of π-metal interactions between aryl molecules and IB metals under ambient conditions. This broke the common perception and can potentially change the way people think when designing and applying metal nanomaterials.

In addition, the nanomaterials that Dr Li developed could be used for SERS sensing of pollutants, pharmaceuticals and illegal drugs. More generally, the new understandings from her PhD research will enable the rational design of sensors and catalysts with enormously enhanced performance important applications, such as therapeutic monitoring of anticancer drugs and environmental analysis.

Dr Li described her reaction to the news that she had been selected for the Kathleen Lonsdale RIA Chemistry Prize 2022:

“I am very excited and honoured to receive the prestigious Kathleen Lonsdale Prize from the Royal Irish Academy. I first heard of the prize in the second year of my PhD from Dr Yikai Xu who won the award in 2019. At the time I also learnt about Dr Kathleen Lonsdale, who became one of my inspirations as a woman in science. Therefore, being awarded this prize is extremely special to me, since it is not only a testament to my efforts during my PhD but also a huge confidence boost for me to continue to pursue even bigger goals in my research in the future. Looking at the impressive resume of previous winners, I am extremely humbled and would like to once more express my gratitude towards the Royal Irish Academy and the panel members of the Kathleen Lonsdale Prize for taking the time to read my application and for selecting me for this year's award.”

Professor Christine O’Connor, TU Dublin, chair of the assessment panel for the prize, commended the quality of this year’s competition entries: 

“This year there were 13 applicants for the Kathleen Lonsdale Chemistry Prize which is the largest pool of applicants we have had in the past 5 years. As always, the standard of applications was extremely high. The applications were a real showcase of the high quality and impactful research being carried out nationally in the Chemical Sciences. It was interesting to see that many of the research projects had a focus on sustainability.”

Dr Li will receive the winner’s certificate and the €2,000 prize at a special ceremony of the Royal Irish Academy later this year. She will also be nominated by the Royal Irish Academy to represent Ireland in the 2023 IUPAC-Solvay International Award for Young Chemists. The Kathleen Lonsdale RIA Chemistry Prize is kindly supported by Henkel. 

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