Dr Lynette Keeney, researcher at Tyndall who hails from Cairns Hill in Co Sligo, was recently awarded a prestigious Royal Society-SFI University Research Fellowship for the second time for her outstanding early career success in the area of deep-tech data storage. In an interview with TechCentral.ie, she shares some insight into her academic career and the importance of STEM advocacy

Tell us about your academic career to date

I am a science graduate from NUI, Galway (2001), having specialised with a PhD in inorganic chemistry under the supervision of Professor Michael J Hynes (2005).

From 2005-2008, I worked as a principle investigator/chemist assessing new pharmaceuticals in Charles River Laboratories, Pre-clinical Services, Montreal, Canada.

I returned to Ireland in 2008, starting my materials science career at Tyndall National Institute, University College Cork (UCC), initially as a post-doctoral researcher working with Professor Roger Whatmore and Professor Martyn Pemble.

I then began developing my own independent research programme in the field of materials science, with my first fully funded project (Science Foundation Ireland Technology & Innovation Award) in 2014. I was awarded a Royal Society/SFI University Research Fellowship in 2015 and a renewal of this award will begin in 2021.

While my main focus is materials science research and discovery, I also enjoy teaching materials chemistry to first year engineering students of UCC.

We’re used to looking at memory and storage in terms of silicon. You’re doing something different.

Using my chemistry background, I design, develop and optimise the physical properties of new materials with the target of implementing these new materials in future data/memory storage devices.

Whereas current computer memories use either electric or magnetic polarisation to store information separately in single bit devices, I develop new multiferroic materials which can simultaneously combine ferroelectric and ferromagnetic storage for multi-bit devices.

Technologies based on multiferroic materials are expected to permit a four-times (or more) increase in the amount of information that can be stored.

In 2013 I made a research breakthrough in this area by developing a rare multiferroic material which operates at room temperature.

So does this mean the end of hard disks, solid state drives and RAM as we know them?

No, I don’t think so at the moment. These data storage solutions are critical in all aspects of our daily lives, influencing how we shop, how we bank, how we are educated and how we are entertained.

Data storage is a vital element in the smooth operation of infrastructure such as road networks, power grids, public transportation and hospitals. As developments in technology continue to flourish, our reliance on data storage is also increasing.

For instance, hard disk drives have an important role to play in our data centres. Therefore my belief is that in general, data storage technologies will continue to grow, simply because there is so much data to be stored.

In terms of data/memory storage based on multiferroics, no such devices exist on the market currently. This is because not only are multiferroic materials that display both ferroelectricity and ferromagnetism at room temperature extremely rare, they also remain to be proven to work at the dimensions required for technologically competitive data storage devices, typically below 10nm (about 6,000 times thinner than a human hair).

Although demonstrating multiferroic behaviour at sub-10nm dimensions is recognised within the community as a challenging task, in 2020 I demonstrated the persistence of ferroelectricity at 5nm dimensions in my multiferroic material.

Supported by the Royal Society and Science Foundation Ireland, the goal now is to demonstrate that ferromagnetism persists at sub-10nm dimensions in optimised multiferroic thin film materials.

You’ve been a vocal advocate for getting more women involved in STEM careers. What makes a career in the sciences unique?

I’m an advocate for a career in STEM in general, and like most industries, it’s important to have gender diversity. Grants like the Royal Society Fellowship not only promote intellectual freedom and independence in early career researchers but they facilitate the work-science-life balance that women often have to juggle. It’s important to increase awareness that a career in the sciences can offer that flexibility.

While specific jobs and scientific disciplines are constantly evolving, the world will always need talented scientists, technologists mathematicians and engineers in roles where they can make a difference.

Whether this is a career in education, research or industry, etc with a career in STEM, not only do you have the opportunity to make new learnings and be at the forefront of discovery, your work contributes to society and you can make real and positive social impacts.

What directions are exciting you in your field right now?

Developing materials for neuromorphic computing (brain-inspired) applications is a particularly exciting direction, and we are targeting this within Tyndall’s CMOS++ strategic cluster.

Because ferroelectric switching involves domain nucleation and growth, the ability to tailor nucleation-limited ferroelectric domain switching enables the creation of artificial nano-synapses where synaptic strengths evolve depending on the switching pulse amplitude and duration.

Multiple levels of resistance can be created within each state by controlling domain evolution, therefore ferroelectric materials are being investigated as unique memory elements in future neuromorphic computing systems.

From a fundamental materials point of view, I find the role that defects have on influencing physical properties to be fascinating. Interestingly, defects can increase the probability of magnetic atom alignment, thereby increasing magnetic response.

We have also learned recently that accumulation of charged defects supports domain wall conduction, which is of complete contrast to the insulating ferroelectric bulk material.

Since charged domain walls can be created, destroyed or moved at will by applying simple voltage pulses, they are an emerging research focus in nano-electronics and domain wall devices.

Defects also facilitate the formation of exotic polar vortices, exhibiting a continuous rotation of the local polarisation vector. Not only are these vortices visually spectacular, polar vortices are associated with exotic properties such as negative capacitance, which can reduce the voltage requirements of a transistor, thereby enabling more energy-efficient electronic devices.