Feb 01 2022 Posted: 08:00 GMT

Celebrating the Success of our Alumni

Dr Sarah Guerin, a Molecular Modelling Researcher and Crystallographer at SSPC, the SFI Research Centre for Pharmaceuticals at UL, and a CÚRAM Alumna is one of eight Ireland-based researchers to have recently been awarded European Research Council (ERC) funding following the inaugural call for proposals under Horizon Europe, the 9th EU funding programme for Research and Innovation.

Accepting the award, Dr. Guerin said: said: “ I am delighted to be awarded this grant and am excited to establish a world-leading research group in Ireland. The acceleration of eco-friendly piezoelectric technologies will be of huge importance to the Irish economy while greatly reducing the environmental impact of electromechanical sensing technologies worldwide. I look forward to attracting diverse talent to the west coast and pushing the boundaries of materials science research.”  

Dr. Guerin completed her PhD with CÚRAM in 2018 under the supervision of Dr. Tofail Syed and Prof Damien Thompson, which sparked her interest in organic materials that demonstrate piezoelectricity. “I developed a methodology of studying small molecular crystals using computer models. Using quantum mechanics (the dark arts of physics!), I could predict how crystals would behave before I made them in the lab.

During my PhD, my focus was on piezoelectric crystals- crystals that generate electricity when you squeeze them, which had applications in medical devices. Most piezoelectric materials used in ex vivo medical devices are lead based, and are therefore unsuitable for in vivo medical implants, such as self-powered pacemakers. Over the past 7 years I have built up an expertise in both modelling and experimental work- honing skills in physics, chemistry, and computer modelling. “

Dr Guerin’s research has led to many breakthroughs: her development of a quantitative predictability model to screen organic piezoelectric materials initially led to the discovery of three highly piezoelectric amino acid crystals (β-glycine, DL-alanine and hydroxy-L-proline) with potential for use in medical implants and drug delivery devices. This is the first time that quantitative theoretical data has been produced on the piezoelectric response in amino acids and peptides, with individual piezoelectric constants being verified experimentally. The work was published in Nanoscale, Nature Materials, Physical Review Letters, and formed the basis of a Thesis in 3 talk with the title ‘Nature’s Shocking Secret’, which was the Thesis in 3 National Winner in 2016. 

“This set me up perfectly for the role I have now in SSPC, applying predictive models to pharmaceutical crystals.” Currently Sarah uses her computer models to predict the properties of drug molecules, in order to improve the material properties of pharmaceutical products, from synthesis to tablet processing. She is an established member of SSPC’s Modelling Theme, working with experimentalists and industry to make more efficient drug products. Her methodologies were recently featured in CrystEngComm.

However her interest in organic piezoelectricity remained strong, and last summer she worked with Prof. Vikram Pakrashi in University College Dublin to validate the first flexible amino acid sensor for pipe damage detection. The work gained international attention and was an Influential Paper for 2021 in Cell Reports Physical Science.

Speaking on her time in CÚRAM, Sarah says “CÚRAM supported me throughout my PhD, giving me a foundation on which to grow and thrive as a scientist. Absolutely everyone, from center collaborators, industry partners, support staff, and management, believed in my research, celebrated my success as a young researcher, and helped with any problem.”

In addition to the ERC award, Dr. Guerin has previously been awarded the 2021 Postdoctoral Researcher of the Year award from UL’s Bernal Institute and the 2018 Young Scientist of the Year award from the British Association of Crystal Growth.

As to where her research will go from here, Dr. Guerin has high ambitions- to make the billions of piezoelectric sensors across the world organic and eco-friendly. “This ERC award allows me to take my research to the next level, building a team to hunt down and engineer super-piezoelectric organic materials, and develop them as functional devices. On completion of the project in 2027, we should no longer have to rely on elements such as Lead and Niobium for high-performance sensing.”


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