Swinburne PhD graduate and research leader in Swinburne’s Centre for Micro-Photonics

Baohua Jia can pinpoint the moment she fell in love with science. As a first-year high school student in northern China, she and all but one of her 50 classmates had failed a difficult physics test. A couple of days later, most of them passed a similar test after a pep talk from their wise and inspiring teacher.

Professor Baohua Jia

‘He told us the reason we failed the first time was because we believed it was so hard we couldn’t pass,’ Baohua says. When she was growing up, girls weren’t considered to be good at science, especially physics. ‘It was believed our marks would suffer when we were required to think, rather than just remember and recite what we had learned,’ she says. The teacher went through the test and showed his students how simple the questions were. ‘It was a new way of thinking for me — don’t try and find the hard way, use instinct and common sense and the answer can be very simple. Today, I see physics as the science that helps me to discover the simple rules of the world,’ Baohua says.

"Today, I see physics as the science that helps me to discover the simple rules of the world."

Seeking simple answers to difficult questions

A quarter of a century later, Baohua is still seeking simple answers to some of the world’s most difficult questions. As a research leader in Swinburne’s Centre for Micro-Photonics, she’s a global trailblazer for combining nanotechnology, optics and a new material called graphene in two world-leading projects. The first is an energy storage alternative to batteries that is faster, safer and much longer lasting. The second is a super-thin, lightweight lens to provide 3D focus on tiny details.

The potential applications of Baohua’s work are astounding. The battery alternative, called a supercapacitor and dubbed the Bolt Electricity Storage Technology (BEST) battery, stores energy in a thin sheet of graphene that bends like paper. It may well be the answer to ensuring a stable supply of solar energy. Commercial agreements have been signed with graphite mining company First Graphite Resources and Melbourne electronics company Kremford Pty Ltd and $2 million will be invested in developing a prototype over the next two years.

"To see the impact of my research change people’s lives and make people’s lives better, that really is very exciting for me."

The tiny lens, 400 times thinner than a human hair, could reduce by two-thirds the width of endoscopes used to diagnose medical conditions, leaving a surgical cut of just one millimetre. It could also greatly improve the quality of photos taken by mobile phones, through a graphene lens the size of a pinprick.

‘To see the impact of my research change people’s lives and make people’s lives better, that really is very exciting for me,’ Baohua says. ‘I just want to do something really useful for people and I also want my team to feel they are accomplishing something.’

A fortuitous career path

Baohua remembers very clearly her first day at Swinburne in 2002. ‘I was shown around and there were oh so many labs, good equipment and so many people. They were all very friendly — but I couldn’t understand the Australian accent.’ Part of the reason she emigrated was a desire to live in an English-speaking, Western country, which she felt would make her a more mature, worldly person and scientist. Australia won out over the United States because of Swinburne’s top-notch micro-photonics centre.

Professor Min Gu, then the director of Swinburne’s Centre for Micro-Photonics, had offered to supervise her PhD in optics. Professor Gu was a global authority on optics and became an early mentor to Baohua. Her choice of career path was fortuitous: when she began her tertiary physics studies at China’s prestigious Nankai University, a relative who lectured in mechanical engineering urged her to focus on the emerging area. ‘He said optics would become a very important area of science, because it’s about light and light is energy,’ she says. ‘I feel very lucky I got that advice.’

Groundbreaking research

Since finishing her PhD in 2006, Baohua has used her world-class optics expertise to understand and alter nanoparticles. ‘If we can control the property of the nanoparticles, we can manipulate the bigger thing (that is made up of the nanoparticles),’ she says. Those ‘bigger things’ may include solar cells to generate and store enough power for homes and office buildings, with no need to access the electricity grid, or a car battery that is like a sheet of plastic sewn under the seat, freeing up space in the engine. Or perhaps a tiny device sewn into clothing able to charge a mobile phone in seconds.

‘Nowadays, everyone is talking about renewable energy, which is very promising but there’s a stable supply issue,’ Baohua says. ‘With a proper energy storage device, we can solve this.’ At present, she’s leading a team of four scientists who are developing a prototype battery. The team developed a small version and applied for two Australian patents in 2016. Over the next two years, they will create a bigger version able to be further developed by industry, including car and mobile phone manufacturers.

"Nowadays, everyone is talking about renewable energy, which is very promising but there’s a stable supply issue. With a proper energy storage device, we can solve this."

The world is taking notice of Baohua’s groundbreaking research. She’s co-authored more than 200 articles and conference presentations and her research findings have generated more than 500 media reports globally in the past five years. Over the past decade, she’s scooped up 30 awards and grants, including a prestigious L’Oreal Australia Women in Science Fellowship in 2012 and an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Researcher Career Award for 2012–2014. She’s also been treasurer of the Australian Optical Society for the past two years.

Finding work–life balance

All this success requires long hours, quite a bit of travel and a constant juggle to balance family and work demands. Baohua is up at 4.30am to write and plan her day, then drop her two children at school. At her office in Swinburne’s state-of-the-art Advanced Manufacturing and Design Centre, her top priorities are helping the six PhD students she supervises, discussing progress with the four scientists she leads on three projects and meeting with industry partners. After heading home around 5pm to pick up her children, she ploughs through emails for two to three hours after dinner.

"At Swinburne, this (juggle) is possible because we have a very supportive working environment for women."

She’s acutely aware of the demands that female scientists face in balancing work and family. ‘It is hard for everybody. But as long as you love it, it is worth the extra effort. If you are able to prioritise and work efficiently, you’ll find the way,’ Baohua says. ‘My research is important but of course so are my children. At Swinburne, this (juggle) is possible because we have a very supportive working environment for women.’

At home at Swinburne

It’s been quite a journey since that failed physics test at Weishan High School. But some things haven’t changed. That former physics teacher’s pep talk has become a mantra for Baohua. ‘If you believe everything will be difficult, then you’re not going to succeed.’

After 15 years at Swinburne, even Australian accents are no longer difficult to understand and Baohua feels completely at home at the university. ‘I love to work in this environment; it’s a really dynamic place. The culture is really adaptive, it’s all about growth and it gives you the flexibility to thrive. It’s not really hierarchical; everyone is really energetic and trying to help each other. For me, Swinburne means my life in Australia.’

Words by Lucinda Schmidt.

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