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McBain Medal 2017 winner: Rico Tabor Q&A

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The 2017 McBain medallist is Dr Rico Tabor, a senior lecturer in Physical Chemistry, who leads the Soft Materials and Colloids group at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. He won the award for his work on surfactants and responsive colloidal systems. The McBain Medal and lecture is jointly awarded by SCI and the Royal Society of Chemistry to a rising star in colloid and interface science.

Tell us about your career so far.

I started off at the University of Bristol, UK, completing my chemistry undergraduate degree in 2005. In my last year, I was very lucky to be allocated an Honours project with Professor Julian Eastoe, and it was this that sparked my love for surfactants and colloidal systems.

After my undergrad, I took a year out to travel and work in the real world, having decided that further study wasn't for me. Having experienced a multitude of jobs, from gardener to waiter, I soon realised that the real world was tougher than I imagined, and a PhD was a great idea.

I was then employed by Professor Charl Faul – a long-time collaborator – as a research assistant in his newly established group at Bristol, learning about ionic self-assembly and the remarkable allure of materials chemistry, later joining Julian’s lab again for my PhD. This was co-funded by Infineum, the oil additives specialist, and I developed an understanding of how surfactants act to stabilise particles in non-aqueous solvents.

As my PhD drew to a close in 2009, the global financial crisis was digging its claws into the UK, and Julian suggested I look further afield for my next opportunity. It transpired that a lab at the University of Melbourne was looking for a post-doc to work on a project using atomic force microscopy to measure colloidal forces. Having never seen or touched an atomic force microscope, I felt my application for the role was optimistic, but it seemed like a fascinating field and a good adventure.

I was lucky to be selected for the position, and spent two and half happy and inspiring years learning about colloid forces. I occasionally had to pretend to be an engineer, as the role was based in the engineering faculty, which has since proven useful!

In 2012, I accepted a lecturing position at Monash University, in the School of Chemistry, just down the road from the University of Melbourne. In 2017, I started an ARC Future Fellowship – a four year buy-out of my time to focus on research and develop a new generation of biologically resourced surfactants.

Tell me about the work that led to your nomination.

Ever since my PhD, I have been fascinated by responsive colloids – systems that can be triggered by an internal or external stimulus to exhibit some function. This might be as simple as using a magnet to gather up valuable catalyst particles, or using a light-sensitive surfactant to separate oil and water on illumination. I became very particularly interested in photo-sensitive molecules, as light is an external, clean, and low-energy method to cause changes in dispersed systems.

Recently, we have been working on a new range of molecules that are light-sensitive, and can be used to reversibly capture and disperse particles and chemical payloads. We interrogate these systems mostly with small-angle neutron scattering, which is able to uncover the subtle changes that occur at nanometre length scales within self-assembled systems.

What are the applications in industry?

For new surfactants, there are always new challenges to address in industry, from biodegradable molecules for new agrochemical formulations, to advanced personal care products that are gentler to the skin, and stabilisers for new food formulations with reduced fat and salt. We work with industry partners across all of these areas, and try to develop a fundamental understanding of how molecular structure relates to the properties of the molecule when formulated.

In terms of carbon nanomaterials, the majority of industry interest comes from water treatment and remediation. The ability to make a step change in how water is purified offers an exciting prospect, and we work with engineers at Monash to try and make our back-of-the-envelope ideas a reality!

What other areas of research in your lab are you excited about?

The topic that I'm most excited about at the moment is biologically derived surfactants. I shy away from calling them truly 'green', as the chemistry has to catch up a bit, but we aim to use sustainable raw materials in our syntheses. This offers many advantages, with petrochemicals becoming scarcer and politically divisive, new approaches to large scale surfactant chemistry that don't rely on crude oil and that don't negatively impact food production are essential.

How do you feel about winning the award?

I was incredibly humbled and of course delighted to be selected. It's also a huge credit to the brilliant students and post-docs that I have the good fortune to supervise. Science is a team effort and I have benefitted immensely from generous and engaging mentors who have helped to guide me, and continue to do so. I hope this means that the world is going to be exposed to more surfactant science, and learn about the power that these magical molecules have in so many aspects of our daily lives.

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