'Nano Girl' to take on TEDx

MARY-JO TOHILL
Last updated 12:40 20/06/2014
Michelle Dickinson
Dr Michelle Dickinson, known as Nano Girl, is speaking at TEDxWanaka.

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Na na, na na, na na, na na; na na, na na, na na, na na … It’s not a bird, or a plane. It’s not even Batman. It's Nano Girl!

Also known as Dr Michelle Dickinson, New Zealand’s foremost nanotechnologist invented this alter-ego to overcome her fear of public speaking.

Nano Girl has stood Dickinson in good stead: it’s got her on the internet on a popular science blog, and as people became more interested in her and her research, Nano Girl has also landed her on the speaking circuit, with a spot at TEDxWanaka tomorrow.

As a concept, ‘‘TED’’(Technology, Entertainment and Design) originated in the United States 30 years ago, attracting speakers such as Bill Gates, Jane Goodall and Sir Richard Branson.

A non-profit organisation, it provides a platform for the human need to learn and teach, where guest speakers are given 18 minutes to share their ideas and experience with the audience.

Some speakers imagine their audience in their underwear, or socks, even naked. American entertainer Carol Burnett imagined people sitting on commodes. But Dickinson invented Nano Girl to help overcome her shyness and nerves.

‘‘Originally, Nano Girl was there to help me to gain confidence in my own abilities. However, since then Nano Girl has helped hundreds of children become inspired and excited about science so she has grown into a much bigger personality than I originally planned.’’

A senior lecturer in engineering at the University of Auckland as well as running New Zealand’s only nanomechanical testing laboratory, Dickinson's career is about how small things - one nanometer is 100,000 times smaller than the width of your hair - can be turned into big things for the greater good, in medicine, criminology and technology: a sort of metaphor for this unassuming scientist’s brilliance in a burgeoning field.

Nanomechanics is the understanding of how very tiny things break. "I develop ways to break tiny things and they often behave very differently to how a larger piece of the same material would break."

She is studying artificial gecko feet, to create a way to make a surface sticky using the same dry adhesion technology these lizards do. She is also looking at how bones and tissues break, especially when they are diseased, to help to understand how to prevent this from happening and how to fix it with artificial materials.

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With TED's change-maker theme tomorrow, Dickinson wants to dispel the image of a lab-lurking, white coat-wearing mad professor.

"I really want to change people’s stereotype of what a typical engineer does and looks like. It's not all hardhats and testosterone, but includes females like me who use intricate equipment to help develop the next generation of materials for the technology of the future."

FROM LITTLE THINGS, BIG THINGS COME

  • There are 25,400,000 nanometers in an inch
  • A sheet of newspaper is about 100,000 nanometers thick
  • An ant is a massive 5 million nanometers long
  • Your fingernails grow one 1 nanometer per second

- The Southland Times

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