Interview: Athina Anastasaki, Polymer International-IUPAC winner

5 June 2024 | Muriel Cozier

Winner of the 9th Polymer International-IUPAC award for Creativity in Applied Polymer Science, Athina Anastasaki, talks to Muriel Cozier about her career path, the importance of sharing, and why the Polymer International-IUPAC award is recognition for her research group.

The Polymer International-IUPAC Award for Creativity in Applied Polymer Science or Polymer Technology celebrates outstanding contributions to polymer science. The winner is selected by the Scientific Committee, representing Polymer International and the IUPAC Polymer Division.

The award includes $5,000, plus up to $3,000 travel and hotel accommodation expenses to attend MACRO 2024 in Warwick, where Prof Anastasaki will present an Award Lecture on 1July 2024. Prof Anastasaki will also submit a Research Article to Polymer International.

The Committee note that the award recognises Prof Anastasaki's outstanding contributions in bringing new advances to traditional RAFT and ATRP polymerisations, enabling, for example, the synthesis of complex multi-block polymers.

She has also developed new depolymerisation technologies for polymers produced by controlled radical polymerisation to address the global plastic waste problem.

Prof Anastasaki's creative discoveries have attracted much attention within the polymer community as an example of excellent fundamental work and have received international recognition.

What led you to study chemistry, and who helped to influence your career path?

I considered various career paths, these included: law, becoming a medical doctor, a psychotherapist, an estate agent, or a salesperson. I realised that more than anything, I liked learning and teaching. So, I first decided to become a teacher and much later a university professor. I chose chemistry because my favourite teachers in high school were chemists and because chemistry always made sense to me. Little did I know that as a university professor, I am a bit of almost everything I ever wanted to be – including a salesperson and a psychotherapist!

How did you become interested in polymer chemistry and what led to your PhD?

Polymer chemistry requires a bit of everything. It requires organic chemistry, as one often has to make a monomer or an initiator; inorganic chemistry, since we need to understand how a catalyst works; and physical chemistry, for example thermodynamics that are necessary for our depolymerization work. It also requires analytical skills, as it is much harder to analyse polymers in comparison to well-defined small molecules. It is this chemical diversity that made me choose polymer chemistry. With respect to my PhD, I chose the person rather than the precise topic. Professor Dave Haddleton from the University of Warwick captivated my attention with his simple quote – ‘I want you to be happy here’. He was right, I had a great time during my PhD.

You have been widely recognised for your work in polymer chemistry. What are the areas of polymer research that you would like to see more work being done?

I would like to see more work being done within the sustainability domain; some of the world’s major problems have arguably less academic interest, and so encouraging our field to seek for modern solutions to “old” problems is key. At the same time, I genuinely think that we should also be researching whatever our heart desires – after all, serendipity decides when to strike and most of the field’s most significant inventions took place with essentially no initial design or strategy.

What practical applications could your research lead to?

Potentially, some of our recycling work on “designer” polymers can be eventually applied to commercial materials.

You wrote a very practical paper, published in Angewandte Chemie International Edition, on how you secured your first ERC grant. Could you share what prompted you to write this paper?

In academia (and in life in general), we go through some darker times and yet, we rarely openly discuss such periods and share our experiences. I am a big fan of sharing. A famous polymer chemist in my field once encouraged me to continue applying for an ERC grant, and he admitted that he had been unsuccessful four times, but he persisted. I found that very inspiring. In fact, even if I had not eventually been successful with this specific grant, I would still have learned a lot from the process and become a better scientist. Alternatively, I could have recycled the idea and got funding from another source! In the future, I would also like to write an article about how I failed in something that I can no longer achieve (plenty of examples here, too), and I hope I will be able to demonstrate optimism and a forward-looking perspective as well.

Read the paper: What Matters for a European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant?

In your career to date, what do you consider your greatest achievement?

I consider it my greatest achievement that regardless of my career stage (PhD, post-doc, independent career) I always sought and managed to surround myself with not only good scientists but also extremely kind colleagues, who inspired me to be both a better scientist and a better person.

What are the next steps for your career?

While I wait for my promotion to come through, I am thinking about different directions I would like to pursue in the next five to ten years. I have not made up my mind yet but I would certainly like to take more risk in research and encourage my group to go after something truly ground-breaking, and ideally something useful.

Finally, how important is the recognition from Polymer International-IUPAC?

This Polymer International-IUPAC recognition indicates that our group is moving in the right direction. IUPAC, in particular, consists of some of the most outstanding scientists in the world who I deeply respect and admire. Thinking that these colleagues like our work makes me truly happy and proud.

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