Dr. Anastasiia Mikhalchan graduated from the Saint-Petersburg State University of Technology and Design (Russia) where she also got her PhD in 2012 in Technology and processing of polymers and composites with a focus on carbon-based materials and worked as a Teaching Assistant. In 2014 she received her 1st Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship through FP7-PEOPLE action and relocated to England to work at the University of Cambridge on novel composites reinforced with high performance carbon nanotube fibres. After that, she joined the National University of Singapore as a Research Fellow and spent almost three years working there on CNT aerogels and fibres for hybrid composite laminates and advanced characterization. In 2018 she was awarded her 2nd Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme and joined IMDEA Materials Institute to work on the project “Nanostructured yarn composites for structural energy storage (ENERYARN)” under the supervision of Dr. Juan José Vilatela García.
To begin this interview, we would like to know how your scientific vocation was born? When and why did you take the decision to become a scientist?
Since my childhood, I was a big fan of geography and literature and even participated in a few regional school Olympiads on these subjects. That was not surprising, because my grandmother was a schoolteacher of geography, and I was inspired by many of her books with beautiful pictures of continents with other climate zones, countries, and cultures. At the same time, my parents filled the home with classic Russian literature, so I always spent summers in reading and truly enjoyed writing essays at school. I also had a gut interest in photography and art, which later developed into my hobby of making textile flowers and painting on fabrics (cold batik). I kept changing my mind often about becoming a lawyer or economist, until high school, when my parents encouraged me to take some additional private classes in chemistry. They believed that chemistry and technology would play a leading role in the global future, and that was the right moment in my life and the right teacher. I finished school with the gold medal for excellence in education and considered a few institutes in St-Petersburg with a focus on chemistry. Finally, I chose my specialty “polymeric fibres and composite materials” out of curiosity, because it sounded like “new materials” to my mind, and I was intrigued by an idea to develop the new materials after all. I graduated from the university with excellence and continued with a PhD degree as a logical step forward. However, I have never lost my emotional connection to geography and literature. I do love writing scientific papers – an inevitable part of research work – and as a scientist, I usually travel a lot to attend conferences, and I have had this opportunity to live and to do science in drastically different parts of the world. I translated my interest in photography into science as well – I enjoy working with electronic microscopes, and by the time, I have won twice the IMDEA Materials Scientific Imaging Contest in the category of Materials Characterization (in 2019 and 2020).
In which institutions have you done research so far? How would you compare research environment between the different countries you have worked in?
In 2014 I moved to the United Kingdom as a Research Associate at the University of Cambridge. It was an honour for me to work under the supervision of Prof. Alan Windle, a pioneer in floating catalyst CVD synthesis of carbon nanotube fibres. I value the most the academic culture and top rank research, which of course, became a great source of inspiration for me and a stimulus to pursue my scientific career. The experience I gained working at the Macromolecular Materials Laboratory allowed me to refract my knowledge in high-performance fibres and composites to novel hierarchical materials based on carbon nanotubes and predetermined my further research direction.
After Cambridge, I joined the National University of Singapore, the group of Prof. Tong Earn Tay under the NUS Strategic Funding “Centre for Composite Engineering and Research”. Only working in the Applied Mechanics group and being a pure experimentalist, I realized how powerful is the collaborative synergy between experimental research and computer modelling, especially when it comes to the development of new composite materials, an important take-home message for me. Regarding the research environment, I found Singapore as, perhaps, the most vibrant and dynamic place in South-East Asia, and this atmosphere certainly has an impact on the scientific life. Science in Singapore is intensely competitive, and it is growing at a fast pace. This requires a lot of agility from researchers to cope with an instant change of the scientific landscape when projects around could rise and lapse for various reasons in a relative short time. I also got an impression that a certain academic hierarchy is appreciated in Asia, which is reflected in the way of organization of the office space, communication at work or, for example, in a typical formal suit dress code at scientific events, whereas in Europe the atmosphere is less formal and more flexible in this sense.
You did your Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship “ENERYARN” at the IMDEA Materials Institute. How did you obtain the grant? Were there specific hurdles that you managed to overcome during the proposal preparation stage?
I knew about Dr. Juan José Vilatela and his group at IMDEA Materials since my time in Cambridge. When we met at the conference in Dresden in 2017, he offered me to join his group because of my qualification and experience with carbon nanotube materials and composites, and therefore, I decided to apply for a Marie Curie fellowship. We wrote the proposal flawlessly, and I do not remember any specific hurdles at the preparation step. Perhaps, the minor one was a difference in time zones between Singapore and Spain when we had skype meetings afterwards to clarify the proposal. I submitted it with a little scepticism for an outcome, knowing that this call is highly competitive (with something about 8 or 9 thousand of applications being submitted every year), but the proposal was ranked with the total score of 97.40% over the threshold of 70%.
Can you briefly tell us what was the project about and which were its main results?
The project objectives were developing yarn stretching strategies to demonstrate high mechanical properties of fabrics made of multiple CNT yarns and the applicability of such fabrics in structural composites and materials capable of energy storage. Before this project started, there was a clear need to demonstrate the potential of these CNT yarns in engineering materials by their reproducible and controlled synthesis, and rational routes to maximize their mechanical properties. I paid the biggest attention to the analysis of the alignment of carbon nanotubes in their yarns and fabrics and made a significant effort in using advanced experimental techniques such as X-ray at synchrotron facilities at ALBA (Barcelona, Spain) and in situ Raman spectroscopy. We developed a method to enhance mutual alignment and stress-transfer in multiyarn CNT fabrics, which is a critical step for scaling up the CNT fabrics manufacturing process and further industrial implementation.
The fabrics produced in this research could be used as an internal layer in the laminate composites, which could form the elements of the aircraft/vehicle structure because of their high mechanical integrity and properties. Simultaneously, CNTs bring multifunctionality, so such composite materials could combine structural and energy storage functions.
The results obtained have tremendous implications for the use of CNT yarns and fabrics in energy storage, where they could extend battery life and increase safety, for example. We successfully demonstrated that integration of CNT fabrics led to strong and tough light electrodes for novel batteries and supercapacitors, which outperform recent literature data.
The MSCA Programme makes a lot of emphasis on the need for researchers to acquire new technical and transversal skills. Which ones would you highlight from the ones acquired during your project?
Attention to the transversal skills is one of the best features of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, and the IMDEA Materials Institute offers different activities for researchers to choose from. Usually, during the calendar year, we have a few training courses with invited experts of the field organized by the Project Management Office, which cover many valuable topics from communication to economics and finances for scientists. Among others, I would like to highlight the course on “R&D results protection and valorization”. I believe the topic is vital for the translation of fundamental science to the market place, and scientists, in general, would benefit if they know how to generate a return from their hard work and innovations besides publishing papers in scientific journals. Besides, I had time to finish a few online courses on intellectual property management provided by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and partially the Advanced International Certificate Course they organize in cooperation with the Korean Intellectual Property Office (KIPO), and I am looking forward to implementing this knowledge in the future. Recently our Institute launched a Technology Transfer and Innovation Unit, which is very good news, and I hope we will have internal support in the exploitation of the results soon.
Obviously, receiving a MSCA Individual Fellowship is a great milestone for any postdoctoral researcher, but institutions and places also leave a mark on people. What do you value most from a personal point of view?
Thanks to the strong spirit of collaboration and good working climate we have at IMDEA and at the Multifunctional Nanocomposites group, I constantly feel that I am in a place with lots of scientific and outreach activities, so none of the days is boring. I have constant administrative and project management support and I am surrounded by talented people, which is great. We also have an extended network of collaborators from academy and industry at a handy distance. For example, an ample number of synchrotron light source centres are available around (ALBA in Barcelona, ESRF and SOLEIL in neighbouring France, DESY in Germany, ELETTRA in Italy, DIAMOND in the UK), and in the Multifunctional Nanocomposite group we always take this as a benefit for our research. I enjoy most my life in Spain, with its good climate, historical heritage, delicious food, and the possibility to keep a work-family balance.
What career advice or message would you give to a postdoctoral researcher who wants to apply for a Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant?
The chance to get a grant is high if there is a match between the experience of the researcher and the scientific direction of the host group, and if the two-way transfer of knowledge is clearly highlighted in the proposal. Therefore, from a practical point of view, it is better to start the communication with a potential host group far in advance to have enough time to figure out all these details. Despite the high competition, I would definitely recommend taking this chance and apply for a grant, because nothing is impossible.
Last, what is the next step you envision in your career?
I am happy to continue my research as a part of the Multifunctional Nanocomposite group at the IMDEA Materials Institute. Together with Dr. Juan José Vilatela, we work on overcoming the barriers for the practical implementation of CNT materials. This involves many efforts in strengthening the synthesis and processing of CNT fibres and textiles, and working more closely with companies in order to enhance the exploitation of the results –the direction I plan to focus more deeply. A lot of interesting projects are going on, such as structural batteries and nanomechanics, a new topic we started this year, just to name a few, and this is the area where I would like to continue to grow professionally in the nearest future.