Dr Louise Natrajan

As part of our Women of Wonder series, we spoke to Louise Natrajan, a Reader in Inorganic Chemistry at the School of Chemistry.

Dr Louise Natrajan: "I’m inspired by my research group."
Dr Natrajan completed a PhD in Inorganic Chemistry at the University of Nottingham before working as a postdoctoral research assistant at the CEA research centre in Grenoble, France with Dr Marinella Mazzanti. Joining the University of Manchester in 2005 on the Leverhulme Trust Postdoctoral Fellowship, Louise believes it’s the diversity of staff that makes Manchester’s School of Chemistry so distinctive.
We asked Dr Natrajan a few questions about her work and the things that inspire her.
Can you tell us a bit more about your work at the University of Manchester?

I have always been fascinated by light. When I was very young, it was things that glow in the dark – like the stars on my bedroom wall. I once tried to map out several constellations! Then, later on, it was laser light shows. Now that I understand these phenomena, I use them in my research. It’s such good fun!

The majority of my research focuses on molecules that glow in the dark (fluoresce), and usually those that contain metal ions, such as transition metals, lanthanides and actinides. We design, synthesise and test the potential of these compounds for a variety of applications, including optical imaging in healthcare and photodynamic therapy.

At the moment, we’re focusing on using the phenomenon of the fluorescence of uranium - which glows green under a UV light source - in order to help identify uranium contamination so we can clean up legacy nuclear waste from the production of nuclear power. We’ve also been using optical imaging to understand the chemistry of uranium in the natural environment, such as when it occurs in bacteria and minerals.

How does your work impact society and the world we live in?

Predominately, we are exploratory chemists, but our work has many potential impacts, including understanding the behaviour of the uranium from nuclear wastes in the natural environment and in the geological storage facilities that have been proposed. Since the UK is planning to continue (and even expand) its usage of nuclear power as a low carbon energy source in the future, it’s extremely important to understand where the components of spent nuclear fuel might end up in the environment in the long-tem. We hope to help unravel this rather complex problem.

What inspires you?

I’m inspired by the people I work closely with, especially my research group. Having the freedom to be creative and ‘play’ in the lab is also a source of inspiration.

I really liked the idea of research and being in a job that was creative and would give me the opportunity to travel, so I chose chemistry.

What did you study at school, and when did you realise you wanted to specialise in your area?

I was never really sure what I wanted to do once I finished school, so I chose subjects that I enjoyed and was interested in, and that I thought would be useful. These were chemistry, geography, French and information technology.

During A-levels, I still wasn’t sure what direction to take, but I really liked the idea of research and being in a job that was creative and would give me the opportunity to travel, so I chose chemistry. It was only really during my postdoctoral research that I realised I wanted to specialise in the field I’m in today.

What would you like to see happen in your field in the next few years?

Mostly, I think I’d like to see the chemistry of uranium (and the actinides) become more academically and publicly acceptable, particularly in terms of its radioactivity. Many shy away from taking an interest in this field as they see it as too niche and ‘dangerous’, which is not actually true. In reality, it’s fascinating, and there’s so much to discover both in terms of more fundamental chemistry and its applications. 

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