Materials science – seeking new ways to reach people

“We’re not worried about getting the science right, but we must increase interest among students and find new ways to spread our results and ensure that they are used in practice”, said Igor Abrikosov, moderator of the concluding discussion at AFM 2018.

Free discussionsAround 70 doctoral students and young researchers displayed posters during the conference, and time was allocated for participants to view them and ask questions. Photo credit: Monica WestmanAdvanced Functional Materials, AFM, has just concluded its third international conference at Vildmarkshotellet in Kolmården. It has aroused considerable interest, and seen interesting presentations concerning both hard and soft materials, and theoretical materials science. Around 70 doctoral students and young researchers have presented their research on posters, and results from the collaboration with materials scientists at Soochow University in China have been on show.
 
AFM is the result of a strategic research initiative from the Swedish government into new materials, and it achieved a rating of excellent quality at the most recent evaluation. The evaluators were so impressed by the quality that they recommended an increase in the annual research grant. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, but the research continues to maintain its high class.

Highly successful research

“Researchers working in AFM account for 15% of the scientific production at LiU and an even greater fraction of citations”, said Igor Abrikosov, professor in theoretical physics, and recently appointed director for AFM.
 
Panel discussionPanel discussion moderated by Professor Igor Abrikosov. Photo credit: Monica Westman“We must absolutely not become overconfident, but the scientific aspects of the initiative are highly successful”, he concluded.
 
The conference concluded with a panel discussion about new pathways of outreach – to current and prospective students, and to industry.
 
Professor Xuhui Jeff Sun from Soochow University started by describing the initiatives in internationalisation that the university is undertaking. The objective is to attract students, and to attract them to materials science. The initiatives involve not only establishing exciting international programmes that attract students from other parts of the world, but also sending the university’s current students to take master’s degrees at a partner university. This increases both the knowledge and the attractiveness of the students.

Interest young people

Emma Björk, researcher into nanostructured materials at the Department of Physics, Chemistry and Biology (IFM) at LiU, is involved in a project together with the municipality of Oskarshamn to persuade greater numbers of young people to take higher education.
 
Emma BjörkEmma Björk devotes 10% of her time as teacher and researcher to stimulating the interest of young people in Oskarshamn to go to university, with a special focus on studies in materials science. Photo credit: Monica Westman“This is a municipality with several major industries and a clear need for an educated workforce. The inhabitants, however, have a relatively low average level of education. So we invite, for example, upper secondary students to Popular Science Week, and they get to do projects together with researchers from IFM. We also hold seminars for their principals and teachers, both here at LiU and in Oskarshamn”, Emma Björk told the conference.
 
The project is part of Funmat II, financed by Vinnova, and the organisers hope that it will act as a model for further work in other regions and schools to increase interest in studying at university in general and materials science in particular.
 
Magnus Jonsson, principal investigator in the Laboratory of Organic Electronics, Campus Norrköping, confirmed that recruitment among upper secondary pupils works.
“We have had upper secondary pupils working here during the summer school, and one of the participants last year asked whether he could carry out his upper secondary project with us. We were happy to arrange this, and now this autumn he enrolled at LiU as a student.”
 
Greger Håkansson, managing director for Ionbond Sweden, sees a challenge in recruiting staff with doctorates.
“You must stimulate an interest for research in your students. International doctoral students disappear after graduating: we need more of them to remain in Sweden. My daughter took a master’s in engineering at LiU and never met a professor! This doesn’t really inspire you to continue into research. You professors must mix with the students more”, he said.
 
“Of course, it’s clear that we must, even if structural factors sometimes make it difficult. But we’re well aware of this, and the need to find ways of reaching people”, replied Igor Abrikosov.

Collaboration with industry

Another topic that came up was collaboration with industry. Kersti Hermansson, senior professor at Uppsala University, told the participants about an initiative known as “Aim-Day”. Companies send in questions about problems with materials to the university in the lead up to the day.
 
“They are often practical problems, and we answer them to the best of our ability. The researchers sign up to answer particular questions, and some seed money is available if an interest in collaboration arises.”
 
“This is an excellent idea”, Fredrik Höök agreed. He is professor of physics at Chalmers University of Technology, and has founded several companies. “Uppsala University has trademarked the concept, so we can’t copy it. It is, however, something that should be taken up on a national level, to gain its full potential and enable us to learn from each other”, he continued.
 
Fredrik Höök and Kersti HermanssonFredrik Höök from Chalmers University of Technology was a keynote speaker at the conference and took part in the concluding panel discussion. “Stop moaning, and tell young people what a fantastic job being a professor is”, he said. To the right Kersti Hermansson Photo credit: Monica WestmanHe also warned about exaggerated expectations about obtaining research funding from industry.
“The person in a company who has the same problem as us often sits several levels of organisation from financial responsibility. People at our level in industry need funds just as much as we do. But if we can find common ground and start collaboration, there may be money available from, for example, Vinnova.”
 
Fredrik Höök also sees major challenges in placing research activity in spin-off companies.
“It is far too easy to start a company and far too difficult to take the next step, because there is nearly no financing available for it. The universities should instead take more responsibility in ensuring that research results are translated into practical applications. At the moment, such work takes too much time away from research and harms one’s academic career”, he pointed out. 
 
He concluded by addressing his colleagues in the audience, spiced with a degree of self-criticism:
“We have amazing freedom and are highly privileged, working as professors. We mustn’t complain about our lot, but consider what signals we are sending to young people.”
 
Igor Abrikosov closed the conference by thanking those who had given presentations and all participants:
“Thank you for rewarding and interesting discussions, and a great conference. Materials science research at LiU is increasing in strength, and we can face the future with optimism. We must also, however, recognise the challenges we are facing.”

Translation George Farrants

Posters at AFM 2018

Posterparade at IFM 2018 Monica Westman

Zhongcheng Yuan got one of three Best poster awards

And, of course, there was a Best Poster award. One of three prizes went to Zhongcheng Yuan, doctoral student with Feng Gao, for his poster describing how to create thin films of the new and promising perovskites. Monica Westman

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