Nicola Kelly

Dr Nicola Kelly

Postdoctoral Researcher
Clarke Group

nicola kelly


I grew up just outside Cambridge and have spent my academic career so far shuttling between there and “The Other Place”. Luckily I have no interest in the Boat Race or any other team sports.

I was an undergraduate in Oxford and became interested in solid-state chemistry after two memorable practicals, one which involved levitating a superconducting pellet, and one where we had to smash a crucible with a hammer to get at the product – much more fun than rotary evaporation. My final-year project was with Prof. Simon Clarke, working on intercalation (insertion) of small atoms and molecules into layered solids – more on that topic below.

I moved to Cambridge Physics in 2018 to start my PhD, supervised by Dr Siân Dutton. The topic was meant to be new cathodes for magnesium-ion batteries, but nothing really worked and I ended up switching after a year to study magnetism in a variety of lanthanide-containing ceramics. I returned to Oxford, and the Clarke group, in April 2022 as a postdoc to work on the structures and magnetic properties of mixed-anion materials.

Current research

A general research theme in the Clarke group is mixed-anion ionic solids, which are those containing more than one type of negative ion, e.g. oxide, sulfide, hydride, fluoride, phosphate. Such materials are naturally much less common than plain oxides, because of the chemistry of the Earth’s crust, and also tend to be more difficult to make in the lab, but they are very interesting to study from a fundamental viewpoint. In oxysulfides for example, the oxygen and sulfur atoms have very different sizes and chemical properties. Ionic compounds containing both O and S thus often form layered crystal structures, with the metal cations also segregated into separate layers. This can have interesting effects on the magnetism and/or electrical conductivity of the material.

My latest research focuses on oxytellurides containing layers of alkali metal cations. I’ve found that we can use “soft chemical” techniques (close to room temperature, rather than the 600+ degrees Celsius typically required for solid-state/ceramic synthesis) to remove and re-insert the alkali metal cations in a (relatively) controlled manner, without destroying the structure of the rest of the material. This is called intercalation chemistry. In this way we have discovered several new layered compounds which can only be made through low-temperature routes.

Other interests

I have my hands pretty full at the weekends with my son, now aged 2 and hopefully gaining a baby sister in autumn 2023. My fantastic husband went to part-time PhD, part-time stay-at-home dad to allow me to take up my job in Oxford but now has to spend a good chunk of every evening and weekend trying to finish his own thesis. When time allows, we both enjoy doing parkrun (at rather different speeds), singing and board games and I also do a lot of knitting.