I am a Professor of Biological Physics and currently, I also act as Associate Head of the Physics Department (Equality, Diversity & Inclusion). I am also the proud (and busy) mother of two children.
My work lies at the interface of physics, biology, and nanotechnology. I am an expert in atomic force microscopy of biological systems and I have a special focus on the role of mechanics in biology.
My interest in matter at the nanometre scale led me from a Ph.D. in 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” in diverse systems such as plants, 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 architects to create bioinspired, sustainable “smart” materials based on wood and plants, which might be able to substitute steel in the future, 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 a 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 "Creation Destruction lab" a nonprofit organization that delivers an objectives-based program for massively scalable, seed-stage, science- and technology-based companies.
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.
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 will be published by 中信出版集团 Citic Press, and the Japanese translation by Newton Press.
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".