A Focus on our PhD Students – (now Dr) Nir Ganonyan

From a very young age I was attracted to natural sciences. When the time came to choose a major, I decided to do a broad-scoped bachelor degree in biology and chemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. During my undergraduate studies I worked as a research assistant in the biology department, studying the carotenoid synthesis pathway of tomato plants. Although I enjoyed the research very much, I was attracted more to the chemistry side of my studies, and I decided to continue to my graduate studies in materials chemistry.

I quickly realized that I wanted to do my graduate research in the lab of Professor David Avnir, from the Chemistry department of the Hebrew University. Avnir, a veteran researcher of sol-gel materials, holds an approach that academic research needs to resolve challenges that are believed to be unresolvable, an approach that I strongly agreed with. I started off with a project on the entrapment of bacteriophages in silica sol-gel matrices, for their stabilization and use in therapy. This project hit a dead-end after more than a year of research, knocking the wind out of my sails. It was then that Avnir offered me, to my surprise, a completely new research subject: synthesis of advanced, functional aerogels. After some reading, I got excited about the idea and started to work on what would become my PhD thesis. The research was divided into three separate projects, each dealing with a different challenge in the synthesis of aerogels. In the first project, I developed a biofriendly synthetic procedure for silica aerogel, that allows entrapment of enzymes within the aerogel matrix. In the second project, a gas-phase silylation procedure for silica aerogels was developed, that allowed the degree of hydrophobicity of the material to be controlled. The last project consisted of the development of a brand-new aerogel material from magnetite (see picture to the right). I enjoyed the diversity of the research very much. Each project demanded a different set of skills that I had to learn and master, beyond the complex art of aerogel production.

Outside the regular lab work, I joined several collaborations, each one special and different from the other. First, my PhD projects were held in collaboration with the Soreq Nuclear Research Center. Second, I worked with Professor Shlomo Magdassi’s group from our department on an exciting work of 3D printed silica aerogels. Another collaboration was with Noa Fein, an artist from Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Jerusalem. Together we made beautiful art out of silica aerogel and xerogel (see picture to the left). Last, I mentored a talented high-school student, Omer Eyal, in an ambitious project to make the very first nickel aerogel. This work later granted him the first place in the highly esteemed Regeneron ISEF contest for high school students worldwide.

I am currently in the final submission stages of my PhD thesis, and looking back on the path I have chosen I am very happy to have entered the realm of sol gel materials. The different research possibilities seem endless, and much is yet to be discovered. Finally, I encourage graduate
students to take advantage of these years and seek for interesting collaborations, not only to broaden your areas of expertise, but also for adding another essence to these demanding times.