On your wavelength

Interactions: Beatriz Roldán Cuenya

Beatriz Roldán Cuenya is the Director of the Interface Science Department at the Fritz Haber Institute of the Max Planck Society, Berlin, Germany.

What did you train in? What are you working on now?

My undergraduate training was in Physics with a minor in Materials Science in Spain. Subsequently I did my PhD in Solid State Physics in Germany and from there I transitioned to a postdoctoral position at a Chemical Engineering Department in the United States. Currently, I am working at the interface between physics and chemistry investigating thermal and electro-catalytic processes taking place over nanostructured materials. My group’s research program takes advantage of in situ and operando microscopy and spectroscopic characterization methods (including synchrotron-based techniques) for the understanding of correlations between material properties such as chemical reactivity and specific structural, electronic and chemical characteristics of the system.

What did you find most difficult when you started working in an area out of your comfort zone?

Missing basic chemical concepts and nomenclature that a physicist does not acquire during his/her undergraduate training, but are essential for the understanding of chemical processes taking place at gas/liquid/solid interfaces. This motivated a slow literature review since I had to stop often to go back to basic undergraduate books before being able to dig deeper into the current literature. However, the strong mathematics background that is inherent part of a physicist’s training was very helpful when dealing with some of the topics in the department of Chemical Engineering I transferred to.

And what did you find most helpful to familiarize yourself with new concepts and jargon?

Reading the related literature, specifically review articles, while having side by side undergraduate chemistry books.

Tell us about your experience the first time you went to a conference outside the field you trained in.

It was exciting because there were a lot of new things to learn, but also somewhat frustrating since there were at times gaps of knowledge that prevented me from understanding a significant fraction of the content presented.

What are the main challenges and the main advantages of working in an interdisciplinary team?

The main challenge I found was to convince the scientific communities you are interacting with, in my case, physicists, chemists and chemical engineers, that you can contribute meaningful new research ideas and findings to their respective fields even without a formal undergraduate training in such field. It was also difficult to recruit students from the different disciplines, the physicists in my department were scared to join the group because I did “too much chemistry” and the chemists were concerned that they could not follow the math or that they did not have sufficient background in specific topics such as quantum mechanics or electrodynamics.

The advantage was that once you managed to build an interdisciplinary team, the boundaries soften and the student and postdocs end up working in a much richer environment where accelerated knowledge transfer is favoured. We managed to become a self-sufficient group by teaming up chemists that were in charge of sample synthesis and for example electrochemical characterization, chemical engineers contributing to our reactor design and thermal catalysis work, and physicists providing microscopy and spectroscopic tools for the characterization of our catalytic materials.

What would be your advice to a PI leading an interdisciplinary group?

To try to get joint appointments in the different departments of interest to foster student recruitment and the exchange of ideas with other faculty colleagues. If possible, this should include teaching some advanced courses or given some introductory presentation as guest lecturer in the partner department.

Do you find it particularly difficult to obtain funding? Or to get your research published?

Actually yes, this was the case at first. When I was an assistant professor in Physics in the United States it was difficult to convince the external reviewers in Chemistry or Chemical Engineering departments that even though my background was different, I still had the required expertise to bring to success a given interdisciplinary project. I found that chemists are more comfortable reviewing/funding chemists and same for physicists, especially when you attend mixed review panels at science foundations. However, as an assistant professor in Physics my first grant came from the American Chemical Society (Petroleum Research Fund) and the second, a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation, was granted by the Materials Research Division in the sub-area of Solid State Chemistry.

I faced the same difficulties when trying to publish in chemistry-oriented journals while submitting papers with a Physics Department affiliation. Nevertheless, with time and as visibility improved I managed to establish good connections in both communities and get invitations to present my work in both communities, which will in return facilitated publication in the top journals of both fields.

Is there any anecdote you would like to share?

I recall the frustration of being a female assistant professor in physics struggling to convince editors in chemistry-related fields to send out your work for external peer-review. I learned the hard way that when a more senior collaborator in the “correct” scientific disciple was added to the co-author list the paper would be easily sent out for review and subsequently published, while when similar quality work was submitted directly by myself it was almost never considered by the top journals. That is a serious issue since it might end up encouraging junior people with innovative ideas not to stand up on their own but seek for “strong senior supporters” to champion a given paper to get into the system (a given journal database) with the end result being that the real contribution of the junior person might be questioned.

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