I am a Full Professor of Biological Physics and currently, I also act as Associate Head of the Physics Department (for Equality, Diversity & Inclusion). I am also the proud (and busy) mother of two children.
I work on physics at the interface of biology, nanotechnology, and information processing. I am an expert in atomic force microscopy of biological systems and I have a special interest in the role of mechanics in biology.
My interest in matter at the nanometre scale led me from a PhD in Osaka University (Japan) on the physics of nanostructures, to biology. My multidisciplinary journey is a quest to interrogate how matter entangles itself with its environment, storing information in time and space, to create (or better to compute) complex structures (from the nanometre scale up) that are able to adapt, learn, reproduce and evolve to become “alive”. My main interest is in understanding the profound physical meaning of “biological shape”, so I study the physics of “biological growth and shape” in diverse systems such as plants, neural networks and tumours.
I am a believer in “learning by making”, collaborating, creating technology, engaging with the public. By doing so I find interesting problems, but more fundamentally I strive to weave responsibility in my science, so my work can contribute to progress in a meaningful, ethical, and fairer way. Currently, I collaborate with Amanda Levete Architects to create bioinspired, sustainable “smart” materials based on wood and plants, which might be able to substitute steel in the future. I was invited by Amanda Levete to discuss our project in "Glass House Presents", it can be watched here.
We also work with clinicians to improve the treatment of pancreatic tumours by targeting their physics, with engineers to create graphene sensor devices, and engineers and neuroscientists to treat conditions such as chronic pain or epileptic fits using ultrasound.
My most ambitious idea is at the interface of biology, physics, and computer science: “can we create small soft robots that can evolve their shapes until they become able to learn?”
I am interested in innovation, and how we can improve the way academic knowledge can make an impact in the real world; I collaborate with several initiatives, including as a mentor in "Creative Destruction lab" . I am also lucky to be a member of the wonderful "Everyday Creativity Network" that seeks to democratise the sciences and the arts with a focus on the "everyday".
I am also interested in the relation of physics with power, imperialism/nationalism, politics and social identities in the XIX, XX and XXI centuries, and I am starting to write about it, like in this piece for Nature Review Materials : "Communication is central to the mission of science" which explores science comms in the context of the pandemic and global warming. In a recent talk at Fundacion Telefonica, I explored the relation of national, "East-West", and gender identity and physics, from colonialism to the Manhattan Project and the tech companies of the Silicon Valley of today, can be watched in Spanish and English (from min 17). Here I explore the future of Spanish science and world politics at Fundacion Rafael del Pino (Spanish).
I have also become a columnist for the Spanish newspaper El Pais, here are some of my pieces: "Japón, Taiwán y China: una lección democrática de los chips" (Japan, Taiwan and China: a democratic lesson from microchips) and "China, Ucrania y el litio: ¿podremos reducir las emisiones de CO₂ usando vehículos eléctricos?" (China, Ukraine and lithium: will we be able to reduce CO2 emissions using electrical vehicles?) and "Los límites de la computación digital y los chips neuromórficos" (the limits of digital computing and neuromorphic chips)
I am the author of the book "Nano comes to life: How nanotechnology is transforming medicine and the future of biology" Published by Princeton University Press as hardback in 2019 and as paperback in 2021. The Chinese language translation entitled《纳米与生命》 was published by 中信出版集团 Citic Press, and the Japanese translation by Newton Press. It will be published in Spanish in 2023 bby ARPA Editores.
The book was reviewed by Barbara Kiser in Nature here : "[A] succinct study . . . Contera frames this near-future transmaterial science, with its focus on human well-being, as an effort allied to social justice even as it probes existential questions of what it means to be human."
The Harvard Business Review - "Exponential view" interviewed me to discuss the book in the podcast "The state of nanotechnology".
I also discussed the book with Kirsty Wark and other guests in BBC Radio 4 "Start of the Week" which you can listen to here: "Numbers, nightmares and nanotech".
The Royal Institution of Great Britain invited me to present the book in one of their evening lectures (fulfilling a childhood dream); you can watch my talk in this video on youtube "The issues we face at the nanoscale".
New video (April 2022): "It from bit? The future of bioinspired computing beyond Machine learning"