HPC-Europa3 visit: Investigating the opto-electronic properties of small nanoalloys during a pandemic

Author: Guest blogger
Posted: 24 Aug 2021 | 15:18

Mirko Vanzan, a PhD student from the University of Padova, submitted an application to the HPC-Europa3 programme in February 2020, just before the world went into lockdown due to Covid-19. The resulting delayed start meant that instead of visiting his host, Dr Francesca Baletto, at her home institute, King's College London, in 2020, the visit eventually took place in 2021 in Donostia-San Sebastián in Spain, where Dr Baletto was spending a sabbatical year. This made Mirko's visit highly unusual, but it turned out to be very successful nevertheless. In this blog article, Mirko tells us all about his visit.

Investigating the opto-electronic properties of small nanoalloys during a pandemic

I applied for an HPC-Europa3 grant in February 2020, during the second year of my PhD. The aim was to visit Dr. Francesca Baletto from King’s College London, who is an expert in the field of the theoretical modelling of metal nanostructures. Such a topic fitted perfectly within my PhD thesis which focuses on the structural and optical properties of nanosystems for photocatalysis applications.

As you will know, 2020 was the year of the COVID-19 outbreak, and as soon as I received the news about the approval of my application, most of the European countries went into lockdown. This prevented me from being able to travel to work with Dr. Baletto in London and, honestly, I was thinking I could lose this opportunity to benefit from an international collaboration.

After the firsts months of lockdown, however, I got in touch again with Dr. Baletto and the team from EPCC, and I was finally able to arrange a visit to work with her in 2021. This could not be done without the kind support of Catherine Inglis and Juan Rodriguez Herrera from EPCC, who I will never thank enough.

However, my original plans were considerably modified, since in mid-2020 Dr. Baletto moved to Donostia-San Sebastian in Spain for a sabbatical year. Therefore, instead of moving to a metropolis like London I went to this medium-sized city in the Basque Country – and honestly, I don’t regret it at all.

Photo of HPC-Europa3 visitor Mirko Vanzan

As soon as I arrived in Spain I felt like I was in the right place. Things in Italy were getting worse because of the new wave of COVID-19 infections, and thus I had been used to living within my house 24 hours a day, without the possibility of meeting my colleagues or my friends. On the other hand, when I came to Donostia, I suddenly started to work in an office on a daily basis again, and I was able to do simple things such as having a beer after work with my new Spanish colleagues. After a year of confinement, I really missed those small things, and being able to do them again helped me a lot from a psychological point of view.

I spent the first days in Donostia-San Sebastian discussing my project with my supervisor. We defined the workplan and decided to focus on the study of the opto-electronic features at ab-initio level of various AuRh nanoclusters, selected over a large pull of structures coming out from Molecular Dynamics calculations. This allowed us to systematically investigate this particular system and correlate it with the photocatalytic properties. It is not worth saying that without the access to the EPCC computational facilities such as Archer2 and Cirrus, this work could not be done. Therefore, I would like to publicly thank the whole EPCC team for the facilities and the support I received during this period.

In the meantime, I started to study some Spanish by myself, and got to know some people from the residence I lived in. This allowed me to slowly enter into the culture of this astonishing part of Spain that I did not know before coming. The people in this area feel like they are part of a strong and united community whose roots date back many centuries. They have their own language and traditions which are quite different from those of the rest of the Spanish mainland. The Basque Country is such a gorgeous place with high mountains and wild forests, but also beautiful coasts with amazing cliffs, as you can see from the pictures. In particular, Donostia-San Sebastian is a lovely city with a delightful bay from which I saw some of the best sunsets I have ever seen in my life. Moreover, I quickly discovered that this is one of the most important cities in the world for gastronomical science, which is reflected in a general high quality of food in every place you go. As an Italian, food is very important to me (self-irony time) and trust me when I say that in this city you can find tasty dishes that have nothing to envy from the best Italian cuisine.

After a tough year like 2020 I am glad I was able to have this experience. I came home scientifically richer and personally happier. This was one of the densest experiences I have lived in my life and it will definitely positively impact on my professional and personal future life.

Scenery in the Basque Country, Spain


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