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Interview with Dr. Jose Moran-Mirabal


đź“· McMaster University

Journalist: Omer Abdullah Choudhry



Omer Choudhry: Welcome back everyone. Today, we are joined by associate professor of chemistry and chemical biology within the faculty of science at McMaster Dr. Jose Moran-Mirabal welcome to the show. Glad to have you, do you mind telling us a bit about yourself?


Dr. Moran Mirabal: Thank you. Thank you for having me. I'm sure I can tell you a little bit about myself. Well, I grew up in Mexico. So I'm originally from Mexico and I immigrated to Canada when this job opportunity and McMaster came up. I did my PhD at Cornell university in applied physics and working with very small materials and looking at their interactions with cells. And then here at McMaster, I am in the department of chemistry. I'm an analytical chemist, but still working a lot on materials and materials at very small scales and their applications to biology, understanding how cells respond to, micro environments, as well as the development of new sentencing platforms, for example, to detect pathogens or other materials that could be useful to replace fossil field drive materials with more environmentally sustainable materials. So at McMaster, I've been now nine years. I'm an associate professor, currently Canada research chair in micro nano structured materials and, and teaching first year chemistry.


Omer Choudhry: That's very exciting. And that all sounds really interesting, including the topics you mentioned, which we'll get into in the interview about materials and applications to biology as well as some chemistry in there as well. So just to begin, would you mind explaining the focus of your research? I know that you have your own research group as well - kind of the focus you take, to our audience for listeners who may not be aware.


Dr. Moran Mirabal: Yeah, sure. I mean, I'll start with saying that we work with materials at very small scales. So if you take the width of a hair, we're typically talking about a hundred fold to a thousand fold to 10,000 fold smaller than that. So they're very, very small materials. And we work with these small materials because there interesting in a couple of ways, they show different properties than the materials you experienced on every day, handling and management. But they also are at a scale that's close to the scale that's relevant for cells. And so when you start getting at this scale where now sell, see these materials, not as, you know, very large objects, but as small objects that they can wrap themselves around, that they can pull on, that they can interact on. Now you can start understanding a lot more of how cells behave in our body, where they encounter all these micro environments that are, really what dictates how they work. And so in my group, what we work on is designing materials that we can, where we can mimic, mimic those micro environments in the body to try to understand how topography plays a role in cell behavior and phenotype. also how we might be able to develop new, sensing platforms, for example, if we want to detect a pathogen. And so all these small size materials become important for a number of applications. So in my group, we work with traditional fabrication techniques where we, make these small scale materials through photo lithography and techniques that were inherited by the semiconductor industry or from the semiconductor industry, as well as new ways of making structure and materials. And so one of the things that we have is we've developed this approach where we shrink a substrate and by shrinking a substrate, we can induce structuring in materials. And so we've used that to again, develop sensing platforms and for microenvironment studies with cells.


Omer Choudhry: That's very fascinating. And especially that topic of micro environments that cells interact with really interesting stuff. And a lot of people may be interested in that subject, but not know much about it. So I find that was a really amazing thing to read, especially, we'll get into more of the substrate level of research that you guys have done. I had a question about that as well, actually. I know that your group has had a success in being able to develop a method through which you can structure it, then films at the micro nanoscale level, as you've said, through compressive stress induced by shrinking a substrate, could you explain the process of what it was like to be able to achieve this goal? Maybe, you know, some of the hurdles that you came across constantly, or really, any struggles or issues you ran into and how you dealt with them and persevered through.


Dr. Moran Mirabal: Yeah, yeah, sure. I mean, this is a process that you mentioned that arose sort of as a side project where, you know, we saw this toy called “shrinky dinks”, which is really a sheet of plastic that you can bake in the oven and it shrinks. And so what we thought was, if we put materials on top of them and we have a specific pattern, whether, you know, it's a maple leaf or it's anything that you want to imagine as a pattern, and then we shrink it, then that pattern will shrink. Right? And so that was, the first iteration. We came up with that idea of maybe shrinking patterns and not having to use fancy techniques, like photo photography to make structured materials. But then what happens when you put something that's rigid on a substrate thats shrinking is what would happen if you take a piece of aluminum foil and you, and you compress it, right? So it wrinkles, it crumbles, and it gets all these structure on its surface. And the same thing happens when we put a thin film on, on a surface that will shrink the thin film is rigid enough that it will buckle, wrinkle and then crumble. And so by doing this process of shrinking, you can get really, you know, fine structures. And so the other thing we found is that if you play with a thickness of that film, you can change the size of the wrinkle that you get. And so you can go from nanometer scale to micro meter scale. And so I think, that process we came up with really as a side project, but then it became interesting enough that a lot of our projects now we're following up on that and the different applications that these structured materials might have. I think the, the biggest challenge to, projects like this is really to get the students to realize that this is something that maybe happened by chance and that they will have many instances in their graduate career and their undergraduate career where things that happened by chance, or you weren't expecting, are sometimes the more exciting results, right? And where new things can come up from. So I think that that's something that, in my group, at least we try to encourage creativity and taking alternative approaches to traditional problems. And so, sometimes, you know, we work with biology and that is challenging in its own, right. Because biological systems are incredibly complex and so, you know, trying to marry the, you know, the materials that we make with some important, relevant, systems is where we're looking for new ideas.


Omer Choudhry: Yeah, definitely, and it's kind of incredible to be able to hear stories like that like how, you were able to achieve these certain results of due to hard work. But I feel like it's beautiful to look at how it was created to, so in your case, you mentioned it stemmed from just a passion of just, um, you know, observing a toy, the shootings and seeing what it was able to do, but how it led to not only did it spark creativity amongst the members of your research group and encourage them to, you know, focus on this and be able to achieve something greater out of just a simple observation. And I think that's kind of amazing to see, especially, being an undergrad, seeing how, we're able to take so many, avenues to learn within university, and being able to find that passion or that topic that we're passionate about and really be able to relate it to our everyday life in order to figure out something new that we didn't know before or continue to build on something. So that leads me into my next question. So as someone who has been involved in the areas of biomaterials, biomaterials and devices, imaging sensing, and detection, interdisciplinary, nano, and micro, smart materials and devices, all of these various topics, being able to manage all of these passions alongside teaching is truly incredible. how are you able to stay up to date with all of these things in your life on a day to day basis?


Dr. Moran Mirabal: Yeah, I think that's a really, really great question. It's very hard to stay up to date. There are lots of new developments coming out every day. the number of journals that exist as multiplying right very rapidly. And so it's really, really hard to keep track of everything that's happening. Right, and even though I receive the daily alerts from the journals that I follow and that are in my field, I more and more rely on my students. And my students are the ones that keep an ear to the ground to bring up to my attention, new projects or new publications that might be of interest that maybe relate to something that we're doing or compliment or build on something that we're doing. And I think that having, you know, a good network of people that you can have productive discussions, scientific discussions, like graduate students, undergraduate students, as well as colleagues, it's incredibly important to stay up to date. And I think that nowadays with, you know, Twitter, Facebook, and all these platforms, it makes it a bit easier to see, you know, what people are working on even before things are printed. And so that has also helped, and it helps stay up to date.


Omer Choudhry: For sure, it's interesting that you mentioned, you know, especially social media. So, on one hand, as you mentioned, thousands of journals are probably being published, you know, within a month, dozens every day that are all, you know, relevant topics. But it's very interesting to see how you're able to use social media. The one thing that's already presenting you with a problem, Hey, so many journals, but you use it to network with people who can keep up to date with those journals. And, the connection you have with your students is also really amazing in how they're hardworking and being able to achieve such successful results under your research group. so just a question that I had was when you originally entered the field of chemistry and PR and in particular in nanotechnology, what was it that interested you most about this field?


Dr. Moran Mirabal: I came to the field of chemistry sort of in a roundabout way because my undergraduate education was an engineering physics with a minor in biotechnology. And then I did a master's in biotechnology, and then I decided to go back to applied physics for my PhD. And so I was mostly on the applied sciences engineering bio interface, during my postdoc, I did a switch and I went to a lab that was doing development of biofuels, from plant materials. And so there, I was exposed to a lot of analytical techniques. And so really, when I came to chemistry, it was really through the analytical technique side and the interdisciplinary background that I had built. And in particular nanotechnology attracted me, when I was in high school, because I started reading some, popular science magazines, where they were talking about nanotechnology being the next big thing. And then one of the papers that caught my attention was a paper by Harold Cray had, who was a pioneer, recent pioneer of a nano biotechnology, where they were making this pillar structures on the micron scale. And they were using these pillars to guide the growth of neurons and then to try to regenerate, neural connections in separate spines. And so that really inspired me because I thought, you know, if you can control how cells move on, how cells communicate, it's a very powerful tool for sure. And so when I did my PhD, I approached this professor, and he welcomed me to visit Cornell. And that's how I ended up doing my PhD with him. so I talked to some of his graduate students that were working on these projects and I thought, you know, this is something that's really interesting. So this is something that I would like to explore. And obviously we haven't solved the problems, right. We're still trying to understand how cells interact with a microphone and structure and materials but that's where it all started for me.


Omer Choudhry: That's incredible. And yeah, it's amazing to see how it's been able to push you to, you know, be able to form your own group now and give that same opportunity and give back in a way to students as well, which is really nice. So my final question is, what do you believe the next steps are for your research group? You've already achieved a lot of success in your studies,in your opinion, when it comes to continuing your goal of utilizing surface chemistry, micro and nanofabrication to create these functional materials, what is the next steps? And are there any other current projects that you're excited about or maybe looking forward to?


Dr. Moran Mirabal: Yeah, I think that, well, over the last couple of years we've been switching our research focus a little bit towards more sustainable materials. And so now we're looking at nano materials that are derived from nature. So taking plant materials and making these nanofibers and nanocrystals that we can then use to design different materials and materials that can be used to replace some of the fossil fuel derived materials like plastic. So those are some of the, areas where I'm most interested in because we've also developed some chemistry that we can use to modify the surface of these nanomaterials to make them functional or compatible with other things that they're not usually compatible in. And one project that I'm particularly excited about is using these renewable materials bio-based materials to create 3D printing inks, and so 3D printing inks that can be used to make different kinds of surfaces. They can be used for tissue engineering, they could be used for environmental remediation. and so I think that the nexus of nanotechnology and renewable on sustainability is going to be a very exciting area in the future.


Omer Choudhry: For sure. And it's something that's also very relevant with all the issues we're facing. So certainly that that'll be very interesting and amazing to see as it goes on, um, that concludes this week's segment for scientist of the week. Thank you very much for joining us today, professor. On SciSection, and it has been a pleasure having you and for all of our listeners, be sure to tune in next week for our next segment.


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