Spotlight: Engineering soft materials for biomedical applications with Ester Vázquez Fernández-Pacheco
Vázquez Fernández-Pacheco aims to promote healthier lives and well-being with graphene-based intelligent materials
Ester Vázquez Fernández-Pacheco works as Full Professor at Graphene Flagship Partner’s University of Castilla-La Mancha in Spain, and she is also the director of the Regional Institute of Applied Scientific Research (IRICA) and the leader of the Microwave and Sustainable Organic Chemistry (MSOC) nanochemistry group. She has been part of the Graphene Flagship Health and Environment Work Package since 2013, and works on water-soluble graphene-based materials for biological studies. She is also interested in the design of graphene-enriched soft materials that emulate the characteristics of living tissues for variety of biomedical applications, including drug delivery, tissue engineering and even robots primarily made of soft materials. We had a chat to learn more about her research interests and her career.
Why did you choose a scientific career, and how did you first become interested in your current research project?
I have always been fascinated by scientific phenomena, and ever since my postdoc, I have been interested in carbon nanostructures. It was a natural move to graphene as soon as I understood the great potential of this carbon allotrope. In particular, one of my preferred lines of research is the introduction of graphene into hydrogels – soft and porous materials that resemble living tissues – in order to improve their properties and applications.
In what way can graphene improve the technologies you are working on?
In our laboratory, we try to create ‘intelligent’ materials. To do so, sometimes we rely on graphene. In fact, graphene can significantly improve the response of materials. For instance, it improves the biocompatibility of our systems and the response of cells when introduced in composite structures. Furthermore, the response of these complex materials to external stimuli, such as electrical or mechanical stimuli, is enhanced when graphene is present.
Can you describe your motivations, methods and goals?
I believe in the impact of science for the benefit of society. We are scientists, but also human beings, and we want to advance our way of life to improve our world. Therefore, when I started working on carbon allotropes, my main idea was to improve our conditions in terms of health and commodities.
In particular, in our group, we designed some soft materials that are useful for creating artificial tissues with tissue engineering, and for constructing soft robots that can safetly interact with people for assisted industrial manipulation, rehabilitation or medical applications – even mimicking nature’s self-healing ability. In doing this, we try to use eco-friendly methods, because we believe that chemistry is creativity and passion, not pollution.
Why do you feel your research is important, and what benefits could it bring to society?
In my opinion, all types of research are important. We can see this from our recent experience in the COVID-19 pandemic. Without previous investigations, we would not have been able to prepare a vaccine in such a short timeline.
The two broad fields I am working on, namely tissue engineering and robotics, may have a strong impact on society. The ultimate goal would be the production of artificial tissues, which ultimately could supply entire organs for transplantation. We also aim to deliver drugs inside the human body, safely and in a controlled way. The production of functional soft prototypes is also closely linked to people's health, through the ever-expanding discipline of biomechanics. This discipline focuses on developing systems that can help rehabilitate people with damage to their locomotor system resulting from accident or illness.
What are the biggest milestones in your career, or your proudest moments?
I come from a very small University, the University of Castilla-La Mancha, in a small city, Ciudad Real, where the perspectives for work and life were not necessarily those accepted in more metropolitan areas. Becoming independent in research, working on my own projects and not those of my supervisor, in addition to applying to grants by myself, represents a sort of revolution for my scientific career.
I am very proud of having been able to commence projects on carbon nanostructures by taking it onto my own shoulders, although I have to recognise that my former supervisor, Prof. Antonio de la Hoz, supported me a lot. Obtaining funding for my own projects was certainly a big milestone that allowed me to start my own group. I reached another big milestone in my career when I became director of the IRICA institute. In general, I am very proud of my group and everything we have built together.
Have you ever had a role model, or someone who inspired you? If so, please tell us about them and how they influenced you.
During my career, even as a student, and even before, I have always tried to learn from everyone I was in contact with. My father was my first model. He likes to discuss all major problems and unsolved questions in science, and he is very passionate about science – he transferred all his enthusiasm to me over the years. My father used to perform experiments together with me when I was a kid, so it was easy to become passionate for science. Then I had several mentors, who were able to inspire me and guide me towards important problems in chemistry and science in general.
Why do you feel that diversity in science and technology is important for the Graphene Flagship's progress? What are you, your group or your institution doing to further this cause?
Diversity is very important in science and technology because it is fundamental for enhancing creativity and innovation. The combined work of people from different cultures, genders, socio-economic statuses and backgrounds makes it possible to search for answers from various angles and areas of knowledge, producing faster and more effective development. It also greatly promotes the dissemination of scientific results to society by fostering new scientific vocations for the future.
My group aims to promote this diversity. We are especially committed to promoting women and girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). For example, every year on the 11th of February we organize ‘Aventura con cientificas de la UCLM’ (adventures with UCLM women scientists), which includes talks for children in different parts of the region to share our experience in science and promote the development of new vocations, avoiding stereotypes.
What are your plans for the future?
I plan to keep working with the same strength and the same enthusiasm, hoping to get always better results, and to be able eventually to improve people’s lives by discovering novel therapeutics and more advanced devices. I am also interested in helping my University and my region to grow and become more competitive. I feel I have the responsibility to use my experience to stimulate and nurture the young, bright and dedicated students who have the ambition to change the world. It is very important to create a critical mass of brilliant scientists, and we can help society achieve this goal with our small steps.