Kirsty Wynn

Kirsty Wynn is a senior reporter at the Herald on Sunday.

Science supergirl has world at her gecko feet

Meet the kite-boarding, rock-climbing, nanotechnology scientist who hangs out with Richard Branson — when she’s not breaking things

Dr Michelle Dickinson is fascinated by science, flying and very, very small things. Photo / Doug Sherring
Dr Michelle Dickinson is fascinated by science, flying and very, very small things. Photo / Doug Sherring

Search on the internet and you will find that new superhero "Nanogirl" and University of Auckland senior engineering lecturer Michelle Dickinson are one and the same. Dickinson is to Nanogirl what Bruce Wayne is to Batman. Dickinson/Nanogirl is a kite-boarding, rock-climbing, scientist of nanomechanics.

As a young child growing up in the UK, Hong Kong and the US, Dickinson was fascinated by science and superheroes and desperately wanted to fly. Her parents were left scratching their heads at the lengths their cape-wearing kid would go to achieve her dream.

"They humoured me as I jumped off something yelling, 'Look at me, I can fly'," Dickinson told the Herald on Sunday. "I have broken so many bones.

I shattered my leg twice, I have broken all my ribs and broke my wrist."

At school Dickinson exceeded in the sciences and a visit to her career advisor saw a long list of sensible options drawn up: medical doctor, dentist, nutritionist. Dickinson's eyes ran down the list and then she rolled them when she saw no mention of "superhero" — or at least a job that involved "breaking stuff".

"I always wanted to be the kid who flew, I wanted to be a superhero and I wanted a job that would allow me to be those things," Dickinson says.

"Batman and Ironman were my favourite because, like me, they are mortal beings who created their own superpowers as opposed to being superheroes genetically." And just like her superheroes, Dickinson is coy about giving away her age.

She says she was the "black sheep" in the family. Her parents were not scientific and her musical brother grew up to be a DJ.

Her parents were, however, very supportive, and Dickinson's never faltered on her dream.

Despite the absence of "superhero" on the job list, a visit to university revealed that "breaking stuff" was indeed a viable option.

At Manchester University, Dickinson was wandering about the engineering department when she stumbled across a fracture mechanics lab. She insists fracture mechanics is just a fancy way of saying "breaking things". It was the perfect start to her new career.

Dickinson spent years at university, got "really good at breaking and fixing things" and came out with a PhD in Biomaterials Engineering.

In the US, she specialised in nano-mechanics. Nano means one billionth — so a nanometre is one billionth of a metre. Dickinson relates it to a strand of hair.

"One nanometre is 80,000 times smaller than the width of a strand of your hair — it is pretty small," she says. "An ant is five million nanometres long."


Despite her success in science, Dickinson has never given up on her dream of being a superhero. Photo / Doug Sherring

Five years ago, Dickinson came to New Zealand to start the country's first and only nano-mechanics lab. That lab is now changing lives with scientific breakthroughs such as gecko-feet technology that will one day help people who rely on the aid of robots.

"We realised gecko-feet have these tiny nano-hairs and we are using that technology to design robots that have a delicate touch," she says.

In the past, robots have lacked finer motor skills and Dickinson and her team have been working hard to perfect the touch and grip that mimics the gecko-touch designed by mother nature.

"No one wants a robot designed to help that goes about smashing stuff up," Dickinson says.

"Mother Nature is really good at designing stuff so we are learning a lot from her."

As well as running the lab, Dickinson lectures at Auckland University to "get young people excited about science". Not the yawn-inducing way science is sometimes taught, but exciting, real-life science that makes a difference in people's lives.

Dickinson talks science in a way that makes you want to chuck on protective goggles and make big things become little.

She is passionate about getting kids — particularly young girls — excited about the possibilities of science.

"I tell my students scratch-resistant coatings on mobile phones are 'invisible force-fields' and the thick, white, zinc-based sunscreens we used to use now have molecules that are so small they are 'invisible sun-shields'," she says. "It is about making nano-science real for them."

Dickinson's passion for science led to Sir Richard Branson recently seeking her out for an exclusive week of brainstorming on his private island in the Caribbean.

She was one of just eight experts the British billionaire invited to Necker Island to discuss technology and sustainability solutions.

Dickinson flew out the day after the invitation was received - thanks to funding from five companies, including Xero and Air New Zealand — and spent the week talking nano-technologies, water purification solutions and fuel efficiency.

"It was the most amazing trip, the opportunity of a lifetime," she says.

"Richard is a really genuine guy who loves what I do and inspired me to do more. We spoke about New Zealand technology and how it might work with his company."

The pair also kite-boarded — a lot. As well as personal chefs and massage therapists, Necker Island also boasts a fully staffed kite-boarding section.

"Getting to kite-board with him was amazing. We did some big trips and goofed around on the water a lot," Dickinson says.


Dr Dickinson was one of eight experts Richard Branson invited to Necker Island to discuss technology and sustainability solutions.

Despite her success in science, Dickinson has never given up on her dream of being a superhero.

"I kite-board because I feel like Batman flying and jumping and I rock climb because it makes me feel like Spider-Man," she says.

She also has a hankering for a pair of gecko-feet when the design is perfected. "I want to be able to help people with the design of gecko-feet — that is the whole point of it — but it is also pretty cool that they will help me climb rocks."

Last week, Dickinson planned to become the first woman to kite under the Auckland Harbour Bridge. "I wanted use kite-boarding to show kids that science is real," Dickinson says.

"I had to draw up all the maths kids learn at school as part of the bridge angle and the wind direction. This is real science that kids can see."

It took 16 weeks of planning, permission from the Harbour Master, Auckland Council and consideration of other bridge users for the plan to go ahead — only to be halted by stormy weather. As Dickinson says: Science can explain and predict, but never control the weather.

Instead of dwelling on the disappointment, on Friday, Dickinson kicked off another challenge: the 100 Days Project.

In the online initiative, participants choose a creative idea and repeat it every day for 100 days.

For the next 100 days, Nanogirl — with the help of celebrity guests — will take 100 pictures with 100 children doing 100 science experiments.

"I want to show people that anyone from school kids to the All Blacks can get involved in science. Science is exciting. We can help people and the environment with science."

Nanogirl always uses her powers for good — never evil.


Nanogirl's top lab projects

1. Gecko feet imitation, with Callaghan Innovation, using 3D printing to make tiny polymer hairs that act as a dry adhesive, meaning things stick better to them. The idea is to use them to line the hands of robots so they can pick up objects more gently.

2. Creating a new medical device for detecting bone diseases such as osteoporosis, with Activelife Scientific — using technology that fits inside a syringe needle and in a handheld device. A new direct test would measure how strong your bones are and if you are suffering from brittle bone disease. The new device removes the need for whole body x-ray scans (called Dexa scans) meaning pregnant women and children don't have to be exposed.

3. Creating a lab on a chip for brain cell measurements, with Charles Unsworth from the University of Auckland. Using silicon chips fitted with microelectronics, scientists are growing neural cells in a specific pattern and measuring their response under healthy conditions and those that mimic a stroke patient to help understand the disease.

4. Studying how ocean acidification softens the teeth of sea creatures, with Mary Sewell from the University of Auckland. The oceans are changing in pH and becoming more acidic and Dickinson's interest is in understanding what this means for the creatures that live in our oceans. Studies are showing that their teeth, bones and shells will get softer the more acidic the oceans become, so Dickinson's goal is to predict when this may happen.

- Herald on Sunday

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