“The definition for being excellent is not ‘being the best in using the most complex words’”
Prof. Regina Palkovits, one of the invited speakers during the MCEC mini-symposium for invitees only, as well as the broader aimed MCEC-KNAW symposium ‘Fuelling the Future’, sat with MCEC PhDs Anne-Eva, Jasper and Jeroen for an interview. “If you don’t move out of the box, and only try to evolve a technology, you don’t change something fundamentally. (…) It is very difficult to evolve fancy new ideas outside of mainstream if you just try to optimize something.”
By Anne-Eva Nieuwelink
One of the key aspects of MCEC is to stimulate collaborations that at first might not seem logical. How do you feel about stimulating collaborations?
Starting from the beginning might give a much broader view in terms of methods that can be used, and can maybe approach challenges in a completely different way because of the different viewpoints. I’m a big fan of collaboration, because at these trans-disciplinary interfaces we see the most interesting new science. However, we do it driven from a scientific question and not because we put people together to see if there is a joint interest. It is a very interesting concept. But in order for it to be fruitful, you need a very disciplinary knowledge and very good idea of your own expertise in relation to where you are hosted.”
Do you also work on such trans-disciplinary research projects?
As an interdisciplinary research, we work with combustion engineers. Those people have little connection to chemistry, but can tell us a lot about the combustion of fuel in an engine. In this way we can change design principles and make an overall optimum instead of your local optimum. For the most interesting trans-disciplinary research, we’ve worked with people from technical history. They re-analyzed how the transition from gas illumination to electric illumination went, because there was no governmental drive. So they try to learn from those events in the past in the field of energy technology and what it may mean for further transitions.
“It is most important that, from the beginning, you make clear that the definition for being excellent in your field is not that you are best in using the most complex words.”
What we, the PhD candidates within MCEC, have experienced, is that researchers from different disciplines sometimes miscommunicate. Let’s say that at first, we did not speak each other’s language. Do you experience this as a barrier to talk to others about your research?
It is most important that, from the beginning, you make clear that the definition for being excellent in your field is not that you are best in using the most complex words. That is usually an attitude that people develop: using all the jargon from a specific field in presentations or use heavy numbers of abbreviations. But there is no chance for a collaboration if you proceed like this. You have to forget about all your standard vocabulary, and that sometimes makes your presentation appear maybe a bit trivial. But if you are brave enough to make this step, then you can profit a lot. If, really if, you lose the feeling that in definition a good scientist should use eloquent wording, which makes it impossible to communicate, you will have good collaborations.
Regina Palkovits is one of the full professors in the Institut für Technische und Makromolekulare Chemie of the RWTH Aachen University. Her work focuses on biomass valorization, environmental catalysis for zero emission technologies, energy generation via selective transformation of CO2 and the synthesis of high-performance materials.
When looking into your research topics, I think people expect that the drive for your research lies in the transition towards renewable energy. Would this be a good assumption?
Well, normally I would say scientists are curiosity driven. But indeed I like to have something to contribute to. In principle it is very challenging and opens up a lot of possibilities to work in an area of using renewable feedstock for whatever application: getting a little step towards the transition to a circular economy. That is cool. On the other side, I always try to keep myself free from this very directional research. Because if you don’t move out of the box, and only try to evolve a technology, you don’t change something fundamentally. As a scientist, nowadays you have a societal responsibility, which is fully fine: no more ivory towers, not being hidden any longer. But we should also not forget that it is very difficult to evolve fancy new ideas outside of mainstream if you just try to optimize something.
“Don’t copy-paste, but create your own vision from other experiences you have had during your career.”
Is your research focused on getting towards actual applications? And is that what you want, or is that what the funding wants?
Half and half… I have brought very application-oriented projects in the field of bio refinery: we move from fundamental understanding of the deoxygenation reactions to real applications. And we try to bring those things one step further with industry partners, but we also have very fundamental projects where an application is not seen anywhere. Like single site catalysts with phosphine polymers. They do something, of course, but there is no such catalyst somewhere in use. So the burden to get such catalysts in the market is tremendous. But you can learn a lot from it: you can have single sites in a completely different setting, make flow chemistry, maybe gas phase chemistry. [With a smile] You need to have the whole fun pack and play in all directions.
Have parts of your research evolved into pilots or applications?
No, not yet. I have a couple of patents though. The latest project was very interesting; where we tried to make a polymer material from renewable feedstocks. We will make it on a large scale and we have industrial partners to test the properties of the material. So we have developed a new catalytic pathway to make the monomer, we’ve tested to polymerize it, and we’ve patented this. So that’s very interesting and I’m really looking forward to this.
“The burden to get such catalysts in the market is tremendous, but you can learn a lot from it.”
You are only 37 years. What’s your recipe for being a full professor at such young age?
Right time, right place and a bit of luck. I had the right mentors and I’ve been in very good groups. After my PhD my mentor asked me to come back after PD for a group leader position. What I also find very important is, that on top of your science work, you can accommodate your private life.
You mention your work-private life balance. Would you consider your life stressful?
I think with time you get a different definition for stress. Right now what I find stressful is when my timing is dependent on other factors. I think you experience that more in the time of your PhD because you’re not so free in deciding. I’m very happy with my job because I’m free to decide on a lot of matters.
A final question: do you have a role model? [With a small frown] Hmm.. I’m often called a role model myself because I’m a female scientist and I have kids. But I’ve had a couple of great mentors. All of them did things I really liked which I integrated and applied for myself. I think that’s most important: not to copy-paste, but to create your own vision from other experiences you had during your career. Basically, to create your own role model.