From a student graduating in Engineering with Hons in 2014, to completing her PhD within the field of materials engineering at the Department of Metallurgy and Materials Engineering (DMME), to becoming an assistant lecturer, Anthea Agius Anastasi has now joined the ranks of the academic community at UM.
Meet Ing. Agius Anastasi, who is part of the future in female engineering and find out more on her specialised research about graphene properties and its implications towards a sustainable future.
Q: Why did you choose to study Engineering? What were your expectations and which area interested you the most?
A: I always wanted to know how things work, how they function. At a young age, I used to dismantle things and put them back together. Finding myself being very curious, asking a lot of questions to others and to myself and always seeking an opportunity to understand the mechanism behind any object I had my hands on. I decided to specialise in the field of mechanical engineering and eventually materials engineering.
Q: Any particular inspirations leading to your career?
A: I was very inspired by the Discovery Channel TV show: How it's Made. My parents are both Engineers, so that was an additional influence in my life.
The more I learn the better I feel, and I believe there is no better way of learning than by starting to ask questions.
But most of all, I have always wanted to learn, I am keen on expanding my knowledge.
Q: What were the main motivational drivers that led you to pursue PhD studies in Materials Engineering?
A: First of all, it is always a pleasure to see women in Engineering, and the number is increasing, especially in postgraduate programs. Engineering is highly male-dominated, however, this is changing. My undergraduate thesis was the key driver. I started asking questions and researching about graphene properties and I got more invested in the research, keeping in mind that the research in Malta was very niche. I decided to pursue a PhD as I felt capable of challenging myself and knew that there is more that I can offer beyond my undergraduate studies. During my undergraduate studies at DMME, I felt like I discovered a tiny fragment and I couldn’t wait to discover more.
Q: What is the research about and its implications to more sustainable practices?
A: The main question I wanted to tackle was how is it possible to measure the mechanical properties of Graphene. The nanomaterial (graphene) was discovered in 2004. It is made up of a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a two-dimensional honeycomb lattice. Graphene has a lot of interesting properties; for example, it is around 200 times stronger than structural steel, and has an extremely high elastic modulus (the stiffness of the material), on par with that of diamond. A technique that can be used to measure such mechanical properties of the nanomaterial is known as nanoindentation using the atomic force microscope (AFM). For my research I used the AFM within the Integrated Characterisation Facility available at the DMME laboratories to measure the elastic modulus of graphene.
Q: How long did the study take and is it the first time in Malta we are researching this?
A: I believe I am one of the first to work on graphene experimentally in Malta. I started in 2014, and I built the foundation of this research in our department. Since then, other undergraduate students have worked on the same type of research, building up on what I have published. Other Masters and PhD students are also currently studying the use of graphene from different angles which means that in a few years we should have interesting results.
Q: Who did you work closely with, who were your mentors? Any other people involved in the study?
A: My supervisor, Prof Ing. Glenn Cassar (Head of Department of DMME), and my co - supervisor, Dr Matthew K Borg (University of Edinburgh) have been guiding me and supporting me since my undergraduate thesis. As I said before we had a lot of help from other undergraduate students who were interested in graphene research. And last but not least, I couldn’t have done it without the DMME lab staff.
Q: How will your research help us move towards a more sustainable practice?
A: Graphene is used in many ways, such as, in efficient and precise sensors, electronics with flexible displays, solar panels, drug delivery devices and more. High performance light-weight composite materials used in the aerospace industry can also benefit from graphene to enhance their strength-to-weight ratios and conductivity. Perhaps in the near future, graphene will also help reshape health monitoring for example by faster DNA sequencing.
A computer simulation model showing the potential of porous graphene to separate salt from water in desalination.
As a research group, we are working on introducing graphene in filtration membranes to improve their efficiency and will eventually lead to a more sustainable filtration system.
So the idea is to use graphene to improve existing technologies and even invent new devices with the aim of benefitting our quality of life
Q: How did UM help you to facilitate your research and did you receive any funding?
A: UM provided me with the right equipment to perform my research, such as the machinery and tools used. I had very professional and consistent feedback from my mentors and other academics.
At the University of Malta you can feel there is a strong learning environment and students are willing to learn, including myself.
When it comes to funding, I am very grateful for receiving the Endeavour scholarship, which helped take my studies a step further by enabling me to visit other labs in both Italy and Edinburgh where I shared knowledge with other fellow colleagues. Overall I can say that through UM I built a wide network of Alumni and Academics.
Q: Any future research you are working on?
A: I am looking forward to pursuing an academic career at the University of Malta. I am very happy to see that after taking an initiative by looking into the properties of graphene and its mechanical properties, the team is growing bigger and I am motivated to keep working towards change alongside my colleagues.