The physicist, poet and translator Elena Buixaderas made it with her article to the cover of the special issue of Women in Ferroelectrics Research and Development, prepared for the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. As she admits herself, she is stubborn and when she wants something, she pursues it no matter what. In science as in poetry.
Could you describe a moment when you realized that physics is your fated passion?
Yes, I was 17 years old and I was at the last year of the high school. I had to think about what to study at the university.
All my childhood I wanted to be an ethologist, but, for that, at that time I had to study biology or veterinary and I realized I don’t want that. Then I realized that love philosophy, in the old meaning: the love of wisdom and learning, and I wanted to learn how everything works from the very principles, photons, atoms… I was always fascinated by light and how it is produced and how it behaves, and I then knew that I want to be a researcher in physics.
You joined a group that belonged among pioneers in their field then. What has kept you at the Institute of Physics until now?
This country is now my home. The group where I work is like family. When I came many years ago they took me in warmly, they trained me in everything, and I saw here the passion of investigating something for the fun of it, not because of citations, money, grants. Nowadays we need those things to run labs and have projects, but the spirit is the same. And I have my space to do what I like, people to work with, the means. I am happy working here with people who care about me and I care about them. I like the atmosphere of the department, the friendliness.
You made it to the cover of the special issue of Women in Ferroelectrics Research and Development. What did you feel when you learned about it and could you explain to us the topic the article was about.
I was asked to write a paper for that issue. This already meant for me that scientist fellows value my work in ferroelectricity and they know my name in my field. But I didn’t expect they will choose my picture for the cover. I sent to several journals similar pictures in other manuscripts and nobody seemed especially impressed, although they are quite beautiful. But also the picture is important. It represents the structure of a material I have been working in the past years. It is quite exotic, the name of the structure is “tetragonal tungsten bronze”, although it is the historical name and these materials now don’t have to have tungsten, and the color is not like bronze.
The structure is very perspective for applications because due to its symmetry there are channels of different shapes, where one can put different atoms and the properties will change accordingly, which is very perspective for applications. It is also quite disordered material, so it is challenging to understand why it behaves like that and how to tune the properties for electronic applications. With my colleague Marek Pasciak I wrote a kind of review of our last investigations for this issue. He helped me a lot to understand microscopically what happens in the material, and how the atoms behave to create the properties they have. For instance, how the polarization is developed in an inhomogeneous way due to the nature of the atomic structure. That was something completely new we discovered for this structure.
The International Day of Women and Girls in Science was declared only in 2015, but this theme has already managed to attract attention of the media.
The issue is important because it unveils the contribution of many woman colleagues in the field of ferroelectrics, which are materials that are currently used in electronics, in many of the gadgets we use. This issue wanted “to promote and highlight the cutting-edge scientific and technological contributions from both established and emerging women scientists and engineers in the field”. And the editors also state that “everyone —not just those who are a part of underrepresented groups— is responsible for successfully advancing diversity and inclusivity”, which is an important message for all scientists.
The issue has a very impressive tribute article on Helen Megaw, who was a pioneer in the growth of ferroelectric crystals in the forties, and due to the possible use in military had to hide some properties and describe only the structure.She was also a pioneer on outreach and advertising science: she used several of her structures to make designs for textiles and clothes.
In comparison with other fields, there are still few women in physics. Why do you think it is so?
I think we have a huge work to do in the way we educate children. First, many girls are not encouraged enough to do physics, mathematics or technical sciences. So when girls at school have talent for maths they should be really supported. It is important to know that you have possibilities, it is important to have role models. It should be normal for a girl to choose these disciplines, as normal as to study philology, psychology or becoming a ballerina, a musician or an actress. This is the first step.
And then, the second step is to support them when they are around 30 years old and they have to take the decision whether to become mothers. Many women have troubles doing both when they don’t have supportive families (mainly partners, husbands), and many choose the family not because they want, but because they are indirectly forced to, by social or family pressure.
I don’t know how much is the natural number of women doing physics, but whatever it is, for sure it is higher than the 10% mentioned in the Issue. So, women should be also encouraged at work, because some of them lose the self-esteem when colleagues do not appreciate their work, or don’t take into account their ideas. And, at the end, they leave. I was lucky with my bosses, they appreciated what I do, but also I am stubborn and when I want something I go for it. So I am here.
You have mentioned Helen Megaw’s popularization activities. These days, however, narrowly specialized research often becomes incomprehensible even for colleagues from other fields of physics…
Science has to be advertised. We scientist have the possibility to make some things better. And general public has to know it is worthy, because research can be expensive and public research is paid by all. This pandemics is an example of what science can do when in need, with all the investigation in the coronavirus and the vaccine. But also in everyday life we can feel it. Especially nowadays with all the problems in energy consuming and climate change, we can do a good job trying to find ecological and sustainable power supplies or energy storage systems.
In one interview you mentioned that the usual time of lunch with your colleagues at half past eleven is rather time of breakfast for you. You work in a group where almost half of the team is international, what other cultural customs represent a challenge for you and your colleagues.
That comment was years ago. Now after 20 years here I became almost Czech. And my usual time for lunch is about 12h. I got used to that. In general I was favorable impressed by the level of education here, the culture of people, and how much they sport. Just small things were unusual, like the time for lunch, that everybody changes the shoes at work, that in general prefers tea to coffee…But many of the things that surprised me at that time have changed, or evolved. I also have changed. This institution now is much more foreigner friendly, and is still improving. We have even a coffee machine at the entrance!
You told us that you have scientific and artistic periods and you alternate between them because it is not possible to concentrate on both at the same time. What phase are you in right now and what is the transition from an exact discipline to free creation like?
Now I am deeply involved in science, because I am writing grant proposals to start new projects. But I few months ago I was finishing a huge anthology of modern Czech poetry written by women into Spanish. When I have a creative phase in physics is very difficult to change, sometimes I cannot even focus on anything else. So my artistic side has to go away for a while. But if it is too long (like several months) it will be a problem, because my brain gets tired from logical thinking and at some point it forces me to stop and go to literature.
This mainly happens when I have a phase more mechanical at work, measuring in the lab, analyzing data. At those times I don’t bring work home, so when I leave the institute I switch off completely from science to literature. And already in the tram I am reading something inspiring, or sometimes even write poems there. I also use the weekends for that, and holidays.
Your artistic work is penetrated with physics, which can be seen in the title of your collection Copernicus’ stars. Could you, please, provide us with examples of the two-sided inspiration? Do your colleagues protest when they find poetry in scientific works?
I have to admit that I have some troubles when I have to write scientific papers, because unwantedly I use metaphors or very long sentences. And then my colleagues are telling me that sentences are difficult to follow, that I should write for people whose first language is not English, and not to try to write a novel ;). But I like long sentences and they express better the sequential logic of some thoughts. I am very fond of grammar, to express a though in the best possible way. At the end I have to make a compromise, as usual.
Anyway, this non-logical thinking and the metaphors helped me a lot in science. Because they help me to think out of the box sometimes, not take things for granted. Except at the atomic level, macroscopic physics is quite deterministic. So, one has the tendency to think that if something behaves mostly in some way, it will behave the same under other circumstances. Sometimes we get too used to the stereotype. However, sometimes we have to take into account some details, interferences, deviations, rethink the conditions and then we discover something new and exciting.
Have you ever written a poem about the Slovanka building and what the first strophe would look like?
I don’t write poetry here, it is not an inspirational place for that. My poetry is more metaphysical than descriptive. When I write, I write about inspiring places, about people, about feelings we cannot put into normal words, I am usually at home, or in a cafe… But when I enter the Slovanka building I am always in my scientific mood. I use a switch in my brain to be in the scientific regime.
Could you please share your favourite books, music or pieces of art with us?
I don’t like to suggest anything, because I have a very specific test in literature and music, and it is not mainstream. So most of people don’t share my taste. I read mainly poetry and philosophy or essays. I almost don’t read novels or newspapers, I don’t watch TV. In music I am the same, I mostly listen to classical music and extreme metal, also rock, a bit of folk. I love movies, but old ones. If I were going to choose my “favorites” in arts, they would be the poetry by Federico Garcia Lorca, the piano works by Rachmaninoff and the films by Fritz Lang.
How would you like to spend your ideal day?
My perfect day it would be something I don’t have now for a long time. It would be like the perfect holiday. I would spend it completely alone, I would go to run in the morning, and later I would spend my time writing and playing some musical instrument, then maybe going for a walk with music in my ears, or going to a concert. I miss concerts a lot due to the pandemics. It would be a day devoted to my artistic side, without any duty :-).
Dr. Elena Buixaderas, Ph.D. study the lattice dynamics and dielectric behaviour of piezoelectric, multiferroelectric and relaxor oxides, using far IR, Raman and broad-band dielectric spectroscopies. I'm interested in disordered systems which challenge traditional ordered perovskites, and in new materials with exotic structures, including topological defects.
She published the poetry collections A través de los senderos infinitos(1996), Desconcierto para peregrinos(2005) and Las estrellas de Copérnico/Koperníkovy hvězdy(Copernicus stars, a Czech and Spanish edition), which is a compilation of poetry from the years 2000-2005. Next to her writing she translates Czech authors into Spanish (Václav Hrabě, Viola Fischerová, Zbyňek Hejda, Radka Denemarková, Jiří Kratochvíl, for instance).