Nicola Spaldin: creating materials for next generation technologies


The ubiquitous electronic devices that make our lives easier (cellphones, GPS, computers) all contain two types of components, which either store or deliver information in the electronic circuits. Should new components be able to do both –store and process, two-in-one– they would allow for a new generation of technologies that are lighter, smaller and more energy-efficient. Professor Nicola A. Spaldin has conceived and developed a new class of “two-in-one” materials, called multiferroics, which are both ferromagnetic and ferroelectric. She received the 2017 L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Award for Europe, in recognition of her research.

While ferroelectricity was first hypothesized by Pierre Curie in the late 1800s, it took another hundred years before Prof. Spaldin’s demonstrated that ferroelectricity could be combined with magnetism. Her work set the theoretical foundations that have made it possible to understand and develop the materials. Multiferroics are rarely found in nature and must be developed in the laboratory. Prof. Spaldin begins by designing the physical and chemical structure of new materials using computer simulations and then uses the results of these simulations to create them with her team and with external collaborators.

Since 2010, she has headed the Materials Theory Group at the Swiss Federal Technical University (ETH) in Zürich, where her work focuses on understanding and developing these materials. She works closely with computer sciences experts, such as IBM, and at large-scale facilities like the Swiss Light Source, as well as universities worldwide to make these new materials and measure their properties.

A theoretical chemist by training, Prof. Spaldin’s expertise lies in making detailed quantum-mechanical calculations to understand the properties of complex materials. She is passionate about teaching her subject, in venues ranging from world-leading universities to remote mountain valleys in Nepal. Outside the laboratory, she loves hiking in the mountains thanks to a childhood spent in the beautiful and hilly Lake District in the north of England; it was there that the surrounding geology first sparked her interest in science, which developed through studies in mineralogy and chemistry to her current specialty of materials physics (which are not so far removed from each other as one might think, she says). Dialogue is another essential fuel, she adds. “Discussions with my research group are always very stimulating and the diversity of our team allows new ideas to emerge.”

The 2017 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards

The 2017 Edition of the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards Ceremony celebrated 5 eminent women scientists and their excellence, creativity and intelligence. For the past 19 years, the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science programme has worked to honour and accompany women researchers at key moments in their careers. Since the programme began, it has supported more than 2,700 young women from 115 countries and celebrated 97 Laureates, at the peak of their careers, including professors Elizabeth H. Blackburn and Ada Yonath, who went on to win a Nobel Prize. The Awards are presented every year to five women, one from each world region (Africa and the Arab States, Asia-Pacific, Europe, Latin America and North America).