Imaging Soft Materials Live in Their Natural State May Pose a Challenge

“Whatever you do in your life, follow your dream and heart as you go along the road and do the best you can. Then you can at least hold your head up high regardless of what comes out of it.”

Photo: Henrik Sandsjö

These are the words that assistant professor Stefan Gustafsson, at Eva Olsson Group, Department of Applied Physics shares with us with great passion.

Born in 1976 and raised in the Sweden west coast, Halmstad, Stefan decided to move to Gothenburg to study Engineering Physics here at Chalmers back in 1995.

“Although I was always fascinated by how things work in nature, it was not until the solid states physics course, that I realized my deep passion for physics. There, I recognized I could actually use all knowledge gained throughout those years and apply it into something meaningful”, says Stefan.

“Curiosity, understanding how things work, personal satisfaction are among the reasons I chose the scientific world”, explains Stefan with a smile.

To fulfill his passion for physics, he started a PhD at the Department of Applied Physics, at “Microscopy and Analysis” Division at the time.

“I wake up every morning, knowing there are so many things I want to do in life. Friends, hobbies and work are all my everyday joyful motivations”, he says. He gives us some examples of his hobbies including sports such as football (both watching and actually doing some), swimming, running, jujitsu, badminton and tennis. He also enjoys listening to rock and metal music and as well as using his time to learn as many languages as possible.

Stefan studies the correlation between the structure and properties in the novel “Soft” materials. These are materials like gel, liquid, polymer or biological materials that offer great potential useful in various fields. Healthcare, functional food, personal comfort products and renewable energy resources are few examples of soft materials applications.

3D imaging and in-situ experiments

Interest in In-situ analysis of materials has grown enormously among researchers from different fields during the last few years. Just a couple of years ago, it was not possible to analyze the behavior of materials throughout experiments while they were happening.

“Thanks to the new technology, microscopes nowadays offer the opportunity to investigate reactions involved in experimentations in real time. This opens the door to great understanding of dynamic reactions happening inside materials in the atomic scale”, he says.

“All materials’ properties are determined by their structure down to the atomic level. Thus the overall goal of my research is to develop new approaches for imaging and spectroscopy. I’m especially interested in quantitative 3D imaging and in situ experiments. This will help us reveal how the microstructure of soft materials affects their properties.”

“My research involves analysis of several types of soft and hybrid materials with interfaces between soft and hard materials. This involves biomaterials, implants, gel structures and polymer based solar cells”, describes Stefan. One example is, analysis of bone mineral growth on different materials for improving the quality of implants.

Furthermore, Stefan images and analyzes various types of gel structures down to the atomic level. The aim is to understand the 3D nanostructure of gel networks and how it affects its transport properties. For his imaging and analysis purpose, he uses Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) and Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM).


Another aspect of Stefan’s research is characterization and understanding of growth mechanisms for nanoparticles (NP). This work is done in collaboration with Marine Chemistry constellations at University of Gothenburg, Department of Chemistry and Molecular Biology.

“I study how NPs interact with the environment such as water and soil as well as human beings”. This is done as a part of risk assessment on how NPs affect the surrounding microorganisms.

He adds, “The common denominator of this projects is to correlate material structure, properties and fabrication parameters using high-resolution analytical electron microscopy techniques.”

Successful collaborations

Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology (SIK), ACREO, Sandvik Coromant AB in Sweden as well as Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB) in Berlin are few examples of Stefan’s collaborations.

“When working with industry, it is an important challenge to carefully establish a common language and expectations. This is crucial since in the industrial world most projects are short term and/or result based compared to our academic perspective”, mentions Stefan.

“I think open mindset, ability to establish good collaborations, working well in groups as well as individually and passion for science are the key factors to my success”, he says modestly.

Just an hour or two

“Although I really enjoy working in the lab, the time has come to step back and let talented PhD students get their hands dirty with some practice”, Stefan mentions with a slight sadness to have less time to run experiments himself.

Stefan enjoys teaching wide range of audience, from supervising PhD students to teaching recently graduated students from high school.

“It requires tremendous amount of thinking to keep a decent balance for the level of abstraction aimed at various stages of education”, he says. “I put myself in the students’ position and try to understand what they know from the start to be able to explain most efficiently”, Stefan adds.

The freedom to establish his own way of teaching, satisfaction from arousing curiosity and being a part of a larger project are among many of the motives for his limitless interest in teaching.

“Just an hour or two to sit down and reflect, is something I appreciate the most during a busy day”, says Stefan. He adds, “I do not know a scientist who does not appreciate an hour to think about a scientific problem, plan a project, read or simply think about an experiment without stress.”

The gray zone

“I think a general misunderstanding for research in all areas, is the superficial view of research regarding truth or falsehood. I believe scientific results are not black and white but rather a scale of gray zone”, clarifies Stefan.

He adds, “Scientific fact is not an actuality that cannot be debated. We as a society should not look for easy solutions and expect scientists to draw a line of conclusion for an everlasting truth.”

Future challenges

“I think our future challenge is to further establish in-situ analysis techniques for soft materials specifically biomaterials containing water. The challenge is in imaging these materials live in their natural state with electron microscopy. This will help us understand their properties and monitor reactions while they actually happening” says Stefan.


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