Prof. Ewa Górecka – FNP Prize laureate 2020
Professor Ewa Górecka from the University of Warsaw received the FNP Prize 2020 in the field of chemical sciences and materials technology for obtaining liquid crystal materials with a chiral structure made of non-chiral molecules.
Ewa Górecka graduated from the Faculty of Chemistry at the University of Warsaw in 1985. There, she obtained a doctoral degree in 1993 and, in 2000, a habilitation for work related to molecular chirality. In 2010, she received the title of professor of chemical sciences.
She linked her professional career with the University of Warsaw, where she works today. However, she collaborated with many institutions around the world, including visiting professorships at the Tokyo Institute of Technology in Japan, KAIST research university in Korea, Penang University in Malaysia, the French Institute of Physics and Material Chemistry, the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, and the Institute of Physics of the Czech Academy of Sciences. For many years, she has actively cooperated with the University of Maribor and the University of Aberdeen.
Even before obtaining her doctoral degree, Górecka left for the Tokyo Institute of Technology as part of a UNESCO scholarship and – under the Fulbright Program – she visited the Liquid Crystal Institute in the USA. In 2018, thanks to a travel grant from the Foundation for Polish Science (FNP), she conducted research at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the USA.
Many times awarded for her scientific achievements, Górecka received an award in 1990 from the Japan Society of Applied Physics for the discovery (with colleagues) of antiferroelectric liquid crystals. Research on liquid crystal materials also brought her, among other awards, the Wiktor Kemula Prize for outstanding achievements in the field of structural chemistry, a professorial grant in the FNP MASTER program, the Prof. Wojciech Świętosławski Prize, and the Prime Minister’s Award for outstanding scientific achievements. In 2010, Górecka also received a grant from the FNP TEAM program.
Her achievements number about 270 publications, among other things, concerning liquid crystal materials, chirality, and nanomaterials, which were cited about six thousand times. She conducted 10 completed national research projects and three international ones.
Prof. Ewa Górecka greatly contributed to the study of soft matter. In recent decades, she has played a leading role in the study of liquid crystals as a pioneer and discoverer of new phenomena. The FNP appreciated her for obtaining liquid crystal materials with a chiral structure made of non-chiral molecules.
Widely used in modern technology, liquid crystals are an intermediate state between a liquid and a crystal, the elementary states of matter. On the one hand, they have the ability to flow characteristic of a liquid, while on the other hand, the molecules form ordered structures characteristic of crystals.
Górecka conducted optical and structural research of new liquid crystal materials. Over time, she focused her research work on the study of atypical liquid crystals, such as made of metal nanoparticles or bent-core molecules. Her achievements in this field have opened a new area of basic research that can have technological applications.
In recent years, Górecka investigated another intriguing aspect of liquid crystal materials, namely how non-chiral, highly symmetrical molecules create chiral, low-symmetric spatial structures.
In the world around us, most objects are identical to their mirror image – they are achiral. Chirality is a feature of objects whose mirror images cannot be superimposed on each other. It is characteristic of both the macroworld and the microworld, but above all, chiral are most molecules of biological importance: amino acids, proteins, and sugars. This feature is very important, for example, when designing drugs, because often mirror-image molecules have completely different properties despite identical chemical structures.
Thus, chiral molecules naturally form chiral spatial structures like in protein or DNA helices; this phenomenon is called chiral transfer. What is intriguing is that even achiral molecules can form chiral structures, spontaneously breaking mirror symmetry. However, untile recently, most believed that such structures could only be obtained in the crystalline state in which molecules interact strongly. Thanks to Górecka’s work, we now know that also less organized matter – such as liquid crystals – can create chiral structures made of achiral molecules. Górecka’s research revealed that structural chirality appears in some liquid crystal phases composed of achiral particles with a bent shape.
For now, this is pioneering basic research, but its results in the future can be applied to the development of next-generation liquid crystal materials. They open up application perspectives for novel optical materials and information storage devices. These discoveries also contribute to the discussion about the origins of the biological chirality of life on Earth.