Christine Luscombe: creating organic electronics

Christine Luscombe

Christine Luscombe is an Associate Professor and Vice-President of the IUPAC Polymer Division at the University of Washington, Seattle. In this interview she talks about her current research and how her childhood fascination with electronics has influenced her career choices. You can read about her published work here.

What research projects are you and your group currently working on?

Our group is working in the general area of organic electronics with a specific focus on how semiconducting polymers are synthesized. The area of organic electronics has really blossomed in the past couple of decades but the ability to perform a controlled synthesis of pi-conjugated polymers with control over end-groups and molecular weight has remained limited. Polymer chain ends and dispersity in molecular weight introduces defects in the polymers, which will affect electronic properties of these polymers. We are interested in being able to control these defects and to study how they affect the properties of the polymers.

Related to the synthesis of polymers, we are also looking at more efficient ways to synthesize these pi-conjugated polymers. While these classes of materials are often touted for being environmentally friendly alternatives to inorganic semiconductors, if one looks at the reagents and solvents that are used to synthesize them, they really are not environmentally benign. We are trying to develop polymerization reactions that will allow us to synthesize the polymers with the use of less synthetic steps and more benign reagents.

More recently, our group has been venturing into the area of organic-inorganic hybrid semiconductors and have specifically been interested in the fate of organic ligands that typically surround the inorganic nanoparticles. It has been generally assumed that the presence of the organic ligand would be detrimental to the performance of the inorganic nanoparticle semiconductor. With this in mind, we recently developed a method to make ligand-free nanoparticles. Our recent work, however, has also shown that if the right organic ligand is used, it can turn into a graphitic material, which can help with electronic device performance.

Finally, we have recently starting to explore stretchable and self-healable semiconducting polymers, which we are very excited about.

What motivated you to pursue this field of research?

My interest in this area started at an early stage. In high school, I had an exceptional chemistry teacher, Mr. Andrew England, who first introduced me to polymers. In addition to this, when I was growing up in Japan in the 80s and 90s, I was always exposed to the latest and greatest electronic devices made by companies such as Sony and Panasonic. From an early age, I was fascinated by materials, especially the use of organic materials, in electronic devices. For my PhD, I was very lucky to work with Prof. Andrew Holmes whose group was one of the first groups to develop polymers for organic light emitting diodes, and I haven’t looked back since. My work is generally motivated by thinking about: what can semiconducting polymers do that inorganic semiconductors can’t?; how do they work?; how can they be made to be better?; what applications can they be used in to improve people’s lives?

Where do you think the field is heading?

With the market for portable and wearable electronic devices growing, developing semiconducting polymers that interface with biological systems, and the development of stretchable electronics is a very exciting area.

If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be?

I would still want to be involved in education in some way and be able to interact with students. I’ve always been interested in increasing diversity in the STEM fields and quite often feel that reaching out to the undergraduate population is too late. If I wasn’t at a University, I would want to be a high school teacher.

Who inspired you to become a scientist?

I don’t think that there is any one person that I can name. There have been so many people along the way. I’m lucky to have had hard-working and inspiring parents. I went to a strict all-girls’ Catholic grade school in Japan where the nuns would often say that the most important thing a girl should learn to do well was to clean toilets. My mum would be the only mother in the school who would argue against that and tell me that girls can be as good as or better than boys in maths and the sciences, encouraging me to fight the gender stereotype that is still prevalent in Japan. My dad would do chemistry experiments with me at home when I was around 12. I had excellent maths and science teachers in the UK in high school including Mr. England, Dr. Grassie, and Miss Carragher. I then of course had wonderful PhD and post-doc advisors Profs. Andrew Holmes and Jean Fréchet. Even now, there are many people in my life who inspire me to keep going.

What do you find to be the most rewarding aspect of your job?

That I get to meet so many different people from around the world and get to interact with students from all walks of life, many of whom are interested in science and want to give back to society in some way. It’s very humbling to be able to work with all these people.


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Categories: Journal of Physics: Condensed Matter, JPhys+

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