The brilliant physicist Dr. Areti Mourka
Dr. Mourka is thriving in the fileds of optics and 3D printing technology
The brilliant physicist Dr. Areti Mourka
Dr. Mourka is thriving in the fileds of optics and 3D printing technology
A few weeks back, the International society for optics and photonics (SPIE) selected 24 women scientists for its annual planner 2021 Women in Optics Planner. This initiative aims to support and promote the work of women scientists in the fields of optics and photonics, while it has evolved into a means of presenting career opportunities in STEM fields. Every year 5,000 copies are printed and distributed free of charge in more than 25 countries worldwide. This year there is a Greek Physics researcher among other brilliant women scientists, Dr. Areti Mourka!
Dr. Mourka has a series of collaborations and rich research experience that spans between institutes and companies. She currently works as a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Electronic Structure and Laser, in Foundation for Research and Technology (IESL-FORTH), in Heraklion, Crete.
She started her studies at the Department of physics of the University of Crete, where she obtained a postgraduate diploma specializing in Microelectronics and Optoelectronics. She received her Ph.D. in Laser Physics from the Department of Physics and Astronomy at University of St. Andrews in Scotland, UK. Her career then grew from Scotland to France, Germany and Qatar with a long list of publications, honors, awards and scholarships adorn her impressive resume until she returned to Greece in 2018.
Dr. Areti Mourka talked to Greek Women in STEM about her career and its challenges, as well as some personal details so that we get to know her better.
What is your current research focus?
I work in the field of 3D printing with extremely high resolution, based on multi-photon polymerization. 3D printing based on multi-photon absorption is the most successful technique for constructing 3D structures at extremely high resolution at the nanometer scale. We can fabricate 3D structures with a resolution of tens of nanometers, which means at the order of 10-9 meters. There is no other 3D printing technique that can offer such a high resolution and its advantages. The nanometer (nm) is a unit of measurement for length. One nanometer is one billionth of a meter (1 nm = 0,000000001m = 1×10−9 m). To give you an idea of this scale, we can estimate that the thickness of a human hair is about 80,000 nanometers, while the thickness of a single sheet of paper is 100,000 nanometers.
In my current position, as a postdoctoral researcher at IESL-FORTH, my research is the material science of polymers and the optimization of their performance. I also work on the development of three-dimensional (3D) structures based on these materials.
The first part of my work is centered on developing materials suitable for the poly-photon polymerization. These materials are photosensitive at specific light wavelengths and can therefore be properly constructed using the corresponding radiation. The photosensitivity of these materials comes from incorporating photoinitiators into them, i.e. molecules that absorb radiation at specific wavelengths, which leads to their breakdown into active radicals, capable of initiating a polymerization process. The synthesis of the polymers is carried out with the sol-gel technique and consists of two different parts, one organic and one inorganic (hybrids). The innovation of these hybrid materials lies in the combination of the very different properties of their components (organic and inorganic part): the organic part, in combination with a photoinitiator, enables photopolymerization and the construction of 3D structures, while the presence of the inorganic part enriches the material and consequently the 3D structures with superior mechanical properties, while increasing their durability and their life time. This leads to the creation of structures identical to the original design without deformations, a disadvantage shared by many commercially available materials.
We have recently submitted a patent at Hellenic Industrial Property Organisation for a new material with high durability or as we say in our field with a high limit of laser induced damage (Laser induced Damage Threshold – LIDT) which can be used in the manufacturing of micro-optical elements, such as an endoscope lens. You can read more about our patent here.
In another project, I test different algorithms in order to improve printing and achieve reliable results regardless of the complexity of the 3D printing design. An example for this is the rapid construction of structures to be used as micro-robots in biomedical applications.
What is the most exciting part of nanotechnology?
The field of Nanotechnology is very interesting! This term is often used to describe the construction and use of functional structures between 1 and 100 nanometers in size. Most of the topics that this field covers arise as a consequence of science and technology to grow and develop in an ever-smaller scale. The construction of a 3D structure that is not visible to human eye won me over from the beginning! The construction of innovative sensors, micro-robots that will deliver targeted drugs to specific parts of the body, advanced high-performance materials (durability, hardness, etc.), biocompatible 3D structures that can be used as scaffolding for the construction of artificial tissues with applications to dermatology and bone regeneration are important applications that excite me.
Why did you pursue your PhD abroad?
The increased interest of Greek students in pursuing doctoral studies stumbles on the limited financial support, the lack of satisfactory prospects for vocational rehabilitation and the insufficient material and technical infrastructure of Greek universities. The main problem PhD candidates face is the lack of financial support. Although most programs do not have tuition – as is the case abroad – it remains difficult for applicants to cover the costs required for publication fees and conference attendance as well as living expenses. Despite the efforts of universities to offer some kind of funding to the doctoral students through scholarships or certain hours of teaching activities, the total amounts provided are far below the European average and are not enough. In Greece, only few european programs give financial support to a small portion of doctoral students. Even then, many candidates will spend more time “running” the program and dedicate less time to actual research, thus delaying the submission of their doctorate. On the other hand, they have the opportunity to create an international network of contacts that will help them later in their careers. In any case, it should be noted that the doctorate is more of a path and less of a destination. A path that involves great risks as its outcome is uncertain, yet this is the very nature of scientific research.
I chose the research team of Prof. Kishan Dholakia, one of the leading researchers in the field of laser shaped beams and their interaction with matter! My good English knowledge, my bachelor’s and master’s grades as well as my performance in the rather stressful and demanding interview contributed to me receiving a scholarship from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council – EPSRC. This is a British research council that provides government funding for postgraduate and doctoral grants. In order to achieve such a fund, one should try hard, have perseverance and self-discipline.
There may be times when people will tell us that we cannot achieve something, because the chances are not on our side. We thus limit ourselves. We believe that we will not succeed, and we just stop trying. What I strongly believe, and I would like to highlight here is that we are the ones that set these limits but when we break them, we can achieve incredible things. The final feeling that you have achieved something, for which you kept hearing that cannot happen, is indescribable.
What were the challenges for a scientist abroad?
The decision to leave your home, your family and friends, the life you have built and so on, is never easy. Sometimes, though, it’s really worth taking this step. First, you get to know a new country, its culture and its way of life. You come in contact with many different cultures and ways of thinking, as in international graduate programs, it is very common for students from many different countries and continents to coexist in a classroom or within a research group. You learn to be adaptable and efficient.
You have worked in research institutes as well as in a company. Can you tell us a few things about this experience?
It was an alternation I chose to make in order to gain experience in academic and applied research. My intention was to learn how research methodology and outcomes can be transformed into products. To understand how universities can become more extroverted, have the potential for collaborations and the initiation of spin off companies. In that sense, applied research in a research & development (R&D) department of a company aims to produce innovative products useful both for society and for business development based on market research conducted by the company itself. There is a clear and strict schedule with immediate and long-term desired results according to the company’s strategy.
Research at a university or institute on the other hand focuses on innovative technological processes and original methodologies that can be further researched and used to access funding both nationally and internationally.
What were the main challenges you faced so far during your career?
As a researcher, the major issue so far has been the access to financial support from the EU or national research funds. International collaborations and research partnerships (with industry and academics) helped in the assignment of projects and the financing of proposals and accompanying actions (participation in conferences, costs of publishing in scientific journals, registration in conferences, technical support, laboratory equipment, etc.).
If you were to give advice to some student in STEM who wants to do a doctorate, what would it be?
First of all, before choosing the field you want to study, you should always do some research! Search and study the curriculum in schools of your choice, explore their professional prospects and learn about the vocational rehabilitation that each of them offers.
I have participated in many activities for the promotion of graduate programs in the fields of STEM. Despite good employment opportunities and high productivity in these sectors, there has been a shortage of teachers specialized in these fields across Europe and at all levels of education. There is also a decrease in student interest in these disciplines. As a result, there is a mismatch between the educational system and the market needs.
My advice to anyone would be not to hesitate to choose such a field that would help them develop abilities to solve complex problems, enhance their creativity and critical thinking as well as resource management and cognitive flexibility. The number of available jobs will increase significantly in these fields – unemployment is already at a low level in almost all EU countries. Robotics, automation, technical research and development will continue growing in a sustainable way.
How well do you think is research supported in Greece?
Research in Greece, after 2015, is consciously at the core of the productive reconstruction of the country. Public spending has focused on supporting human resources, infrastructure and research projects, mainly through the Hellenic Institute for Research and Innovation (H.F.R.I.). At the same time, in 2018-19, for the first time in our country, healthy innovative entrepreneurship was supported to a large extent and intensity through programs of the structural funds, such as the “Research-Create-Innovate” of the General Secretariat for Research and Technology (GSRT). Consistent, systematic and effective funding of research ensures its viability.
What is the most positive part, research-wise, that you observe in Greece compared to other countries you have worked before?
I work 8-9 hours a day, for a total of about 42 hours a week. The working model in Germany, for example, is completely different from the one in Greece. In Germany, if someone works more than 42 hours, they are considered to be counterproductive.
The most positive part of my research at IESL-FORTH is the ease of finding new collaborators from different fields, such as biology or computer science, since the institutes of Molecular Biology & Biotechnology (IMBB) as well as the Institute of Computer Science (ICS) are co-located with the Institute of Electronic Structure & Laser (IESL), assisting in interdepartmental research.
Is there anyone in your life who acted as an inspiration?
The man who inspired me to follow the path of research and supported me throughout my studies and I am really grateful for all these, is my father. He had many skills and the know-how in repairing from car engines to home appliances. I will always remember him with love and pride! And I will always follow his advice carefully: “It is important to know who you are and what do you want to achieve in your life – keep your smile during difficult times and always remember the reason you started this journey!”.
Have you ever received mentoring or guidance from another researcher along the way so far? What was the most important thing you got out of this relationship?
Both my bachelor’s and master’s theses were carried out at the Institute of Electronic Structure and Laser at FORTH under the supervision of Prof. Kostas Fotakis, former Deputy Minister of Culture, Education and Religion, responsible for research and innovation, as well as the researcher Dr. Maria Farsari. We had a very good collaboration, through which I learned to work meticulously. I also received very good guidance from the supervising professor of my dissertation, Prof. Kishan Dholakia and I keep the following advice from him: “the recipe for success is, beyond hard and systematic work, to do what you like and what you can be good at.”
Can you give us an example of what you do in a day?
I wake up around 8 am, drink my coffee and at the same time get ready. I apply multitasking training at home as much as I can. I live in a suburb of Heraklion, so I drive to go to work. As soon as I get to work, I turn on the laser, since it has to stay in standby mode (warm-up) for a few minutes before using it. Then I rinse the “substrate” very well, which is the material on which the printing will be done – the construction platform. The next step is to prepare the printing material, by mixing the liquid substances, from which I will place a drop on the substrate. With the help of various visual elements, e.g. lens, I will focus the laser beam on the printing material. Just as an inkjet printer adds individual ink dots to form an image, the 3D printer I use in the lab solidifies liquid material only where needed, in the spots dictated by the digital design. I select the desired model on the computer (digital design) and this is then translated into a three-dimensional structure using the laser, where the material is solidified locally. After printing is done, rinsing of the non-solidified liquid is required, so that only the solidified spots (laser irradiated spots) remain on the substrate according to the digital design of the 3D structure. At the same time, I try to read one or two research articles a day. It is important to keep reading and being informed. This way, when a good idea comes to you, you will be able to recognize it as such first and then implement it. Studying never stops!
We thank Dr. Mourk a Greek physics researcer for such a constructive discussion and are thrilled that we could share it with you! We hope that you will be as much inspired as we are, and as Dr. Mourka said: “we are the ones that set these limits to ourselves but when we break them, we can achieve incredible things. The final feeling that you have achieved something, for which you kept hearing that cannot happen, is indescribable.”
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