Dr Michelle Spencer is passionate about chemistry and has been awarded for teaching excellence. Her research at RMIT looks into the development new materials with environmental capabilities.
I’m a senior lecturer in Chemistry and coordinate two courses for the Bachelor of Applied Sciences degree. I also supervise honours and postgraduate research students.
On the research side, I lead a group in computational materials chemistry where we are developing new materials and nanomaterials to enhance technological capabilities for batteries, gas sensors and electronic devices. The research crosses a number of disciplines including chemistry, physics and nanotechnology and has strong collaborative links with other research groups within Australia and overseas.
I was drawn to the field of chemistry and the science of materials at a very young age. My parents used to take my brothers and I gemstone fossicking and we would regularly wander creek beds looking for semi-precious stones. While the rocks we found were not diamonds, I loved finding quartz crystals, lace agates or even jaspers and tourmaline.
Since then, I’ve been fascinated by the beauty of crystals and intrigued by the way their composition and their different atomic arrangements produce such a variety of colours, forms and shapes.
Nowadays, I use computer simulations to predict the structure and properties of materials, which can then be used to guide their synthesis and characterisation in the lab.
Chemistry is relevant to so many areas of our lives; from health and medicine to food and climate change. Everything we see is made up of atoms and molecules and an ability to understand them helps us to improve our way of life by advancing our technological capabilities.
I’m particularly interested in clean energy sources and with growing concerns over the impact of emissions on the environment, renewable energy is a practical solution.
While wind and solar technologies produce clean energy, their intensity varies at different times of the day and year. The development of suitable energy storage systems, like lithium-ion batteries, may hold the key to preventing the fluctuations inherent in these outputs. The challenge however, is to find new component materials for these systems that are reliable and economically viable.
In addition to renewable energy, I’m interested in air quality and developing materials for sensors to detect pollutant molecules that may be present in our homes, offices and schools.
Right now, there are a number of burgeoning areas in chemistry related to climate change and new materials, which also fall under the Australian Government’s science and research priorities in energy and advanced manufacturing.
In lectures and laboratory classes, my teaching involves the use of visual tools such as videos, animations and molecular models. I also incorporate active learning strategies, placing an emphasis on the use of real world examples to give context to what students are learning.
Recently I received the 2015 RMIT University Teaching Excellence Award - Higher Education Early Career Academic and I was also awarded the 2015 La Trobe University Max O’Connor Chemistry Lectureship medal.
Receiving acknowledgement for my teaching has come as a surprise to me. I’ve been commended on my preparedness, clear lecture organisation and explanations, enthusiasm, caring approach and passion – which has been motivating.
I enjoy my role as a teacher and recognise that I play an important part in the journey of my students. It’s satisfying to see an enthusiastic student who is enjoying their learning experience and I feel very proud when I see my students going on to pursue careers and further studies in chemistry.