Talk with Ariadni Boziki (ChemE Researcher)

This week we got a chance to have a conversation with an accomplished researcher, Dr. Ariadni Boziki. She has done her PhD in Computational Chemistry from Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, (EPFL) in 2019. Before that, she has done her Diploma in Chemical Engineering from the National Technical University of Athens in 2014. She is currently working as a Scientific Research Associate at the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics (SIB)-University of Basel.

Apart from her robust research skills, she has also had multiple internships during her studies in order to get a good insight into the industry. Some of the industrial roles she has worked in include Production Engineering and QC Intern and as a Marketing Assistant at multiple companies. Recently, after finishing her PhD, she went on to work as a Postdoctoral Researcher at EPFL, and currently she is working as a Scientific Research associate at the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics.

Undoubtedly, Ariadni has served and seen the best of both worlds, having worked in both the industry and having done a PhD as well. She has robust skills in both engineering and research. Her PhD was focused on computational chemistry, which is considered to be one of the topics in the STEM world, hence she speaks of her competent and skills in mathematics and engineering.

We are very lucky to have had a chance to have a conversation with her, and her insights are quite valuable to be shared with the future graduates. So read below to learn more about her education and experience.

Education

As mentioned, she is an alumnus of Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) with a PhD (2019) and National Technical University of Athens (NTUA) with a Diploma of Chemical Engineering (2014).

Could you tell a little about your PhD research area?

I conducted my PhD thesis in the field of Computational Chemistry, a branch of chemistry that uses computer simulations to solve chemical problems. In Computational Chemistry we are using algorithms that are based on theories and methods of quantum mechanics as well as classical mechanics. Some popular methods and theories are ab-initio and classical molecular dynamics, wave function-based methods, density functional theory (DFT), time-dependent density functional theory (TDDFT) and so on. All of these methods are appropriately linking the microscopic behavior of matter with its macroscopic properties. In my dissertation, more specifically, I employed a compendium of such computational methods to study the structural characteristics, relative stability and optical properties of a variety of organic-inorganic halide perovskites, a class of light-harvesting materials that have amazed the photovoltaic community due to their exceptional properties.

What did you end up spending a lot time on?

Most of the time of my PhD studies has been invested in the performance of the atomistic simulations and the statistical analysis of the results.

What topics did you find the most difficult during your degree?

The curriculum of the school of Chemical Engineering in the National Technical University of Athens is very broad. During my studies, I personally found more challenging the courses of transport phenomena that were focusing on fluid dynamics. However, nowadays, I have changed my perspective about fluid dynamics. It is a field that is both challenging and fascinating at the same time. Of course, it is worth mentioning that in the beginning of my PhD studies, the biggest challenge was the integration of quantum mechanics’ methods given that the chemical engineering curriculum does not include courses dedicated to quantum mechanics.

What line did you choose to focus during your degree? Why did you choose this specific line?

From the first year of my chemical engineering studies I have been fascinated by the application of computing and process systems technology in chemical engineering and the way these fields revolutionized industry. Nowadays, computer assisted methods, models to design, control and optimize processes and automation are attracting great attention due to advantages such as higher production rates, more efficient use of materials and better product quality. For these reasons, I decided to focus during my degree on modelling and simulations and I was choosing when it was possible courses that were covering these disciplines. While I was following a course entitled connecting microscopic and macroscopic properties via computation, given by Prof. Dr. Doros Theodorou, I came across for the first time with atomistic simulations and I realized how important the microscopic understanding of mater will be in the near future for finding solutions related to chemical engineering challenges. In principle that was the driving force that made me decide that I wanted to pursue a PhD in the field of computational chemistry.

Did you get your degree from your home country or did you go abroad? if yes, from where to where? How did you do it?

I got my degree in my home country, Greece and later on I moved to Switzerland and more specifically to EPFL in Lausanne to pursue my PhD studies.

Did you have student jobs during or between your education? How did you get them? Where did you work? How did it help your education or future career?

I did several internships during my degree that actually helped me a lot to discover the branches of chemical engineering. The internships I conducted in the world leader in gases, technologies and services for industry and health, AIR LIQUIDE and in one of the main industrial units in Greece for the production of industrial and marine paints SMALTOLIN gave me the opportunity to discover the duties and tasks of a production engineer and quality control analyst. In addition, my research internship at the biomedical sciences research center “Alexander Fleming” not only helped me to understand what are the principles a competent researcher should follow but it also gave me the opportunity to deepen my knowledge and gain hands-on experience on several instrumental methods of chemical analysis.

How did you get this PhD? Did you apply for it externally or did your professor suggested your name for the tenure?

As mentioned above, I was interested in pursuing a PhD in the field of computational chemistry. For this reason, I applied for a PhD position in the internationally recognized group of Prof. Dr. Ursula Röthlisberger, (Laboratory of Computational Chemistry and Biochemistry) at EPFL. Hopefully, she offered me a position in her group and I pursued my PhD under her guidance.

If someone wishes to pursue a PhD, what should the MS Students be doing special? How do you think they can prepare and brush themselves up to be a competent PhD researcher like yourself?

There is no single recipe for success. The professional competencies a master student need to have depend on the specific scientific subject and field, he/she wants to work on in the future. If for example, he/she is interested in organic synthesis, it is important to develop specific wet lab skills during the degree. If, he/she is interested in computational studies, it is better to develop computer coding skills. However, in my personal opinion, the most important ingredient is the love that someone has for his/her research field. The job of a PhD student and in turn of a researcher is complicated. We (researchers) are exploring the unexplored and we are encountering many challenges as well as failures in a daily basis. For this reason, we always need to stay motivated and passionate and the driving force for that is the love for what we are doing. At the very end, there is always that wonderful moment that the project on which we have dedicated a lot of time and effort is finally working. This “unique” moment of either discovering something new or implementing something that nobody has ever implemented is usually what brings joy to our hearts and motivates us even more.

Your PhD topic seems a bit unconventional for chemical engineering graduate. Computational and quantum mechanics is something many ChemE run away from due to its complex nature. Why did you choose to pursue this field?

Indeed, quantum mechanics is not a course someone expects to be taught in Chemical Engineering School. However, as I already mentioned, computer assisted methods have drastically integrated in industry and it is worth mentioning that the R&D departments of many global leader companies (industries) are having computational chemistry groups that apply quantum mechanical methods in order to come up with new products and processes. Besides, the rise in computing power nowadays not only accelerated the performance of computer calculations allowing to study the system’s behavior under conditions that might not be feasible in a real laboratory but also opened new paths for finding solutions with relatively low cost avoiding the use of expensive equipment. If we also consider that computational chemistry is currently a synergistic assembly between ab initio simulations and machine learning techniques, we see that this field has a lot of potential in playing a major role in several industrial sectors in the near future. All these reasons actually, made me decide to pursue a PhD in this field.

Work Experience

Ariadni is currently working as a Scientific Research Associate at the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics, and has been at this role for the past 3 months.

What is your daily work routine like? What do you do at your job?

In my current position, I am applying deep learning methods to deal with computational structural biology problems.

What are the typical tasks which you have to deal with?

In principle, coding and programming are the main tasks I have to deal with. The language I am using is python, due to its simplicity that allows to write concise and reliable codes. Of course, there are also several tasks that need the usage of already implemented tools. Last but not least, following the literature of the field is another important task. Being updated for the state-of-the-art techniques as well as latest discoveries is always beneficial for the progress of any scientific project.

What hard and soft skills are the most important for your job?

Definitely coding and programming as well as knowledge of using a variety of simulation techniques and computer programs are important skills. Statistical methods are also key ingredients. Of course, we should also refer to the soft skills. I believe that communication, critical thinking, decision-making, creativity, resourcefulness, team spirit are some of the main skills.

What is the best thing about your job?

Discovering and exploring new materials by appropriately linking the microscopic behavior of matter with its macroscopic properties excites me the most. Of course, I need to also mention that having the opportunity to work in a team that is composed of great and diligent scientists creates a pleasant atmosphere that keeps me positive and motivated.

Which topics from your degree do you use the most on the workplace?

From my Chemical Engineering studies, I could say that organic chemistry, molecular biology and biochemistry together with coding and modelling are the main topics I use in my current workplace. Of course I do believe that every topic of my degree studies is important. For example, I am employing statistical methods for the analysis of my results, which means that I actually use the knowledge I gained from the mathematics courses. Another very interesting topic in my opinion is thermodynamics. Very often in our work we have to deal with the calculation of free energy profiles. Thermodynamics then plays a key role in assessing these problems.

What are your future plans for your career?

I wish I can always work on challenging projects; which goal is to advance the quality of life.

Many people think that after a Phd, you can only move into Academia positions and getting into the industry becomes more difficult. Do you agree with this statement?

Yes, and no! It is true that the main goal of a PhD program is to prepare the candidates (PhD students) for a successful scientific career in Academia. It is not by chance that most of the PhD programs around the world are designed in such a way that the PhD student gets familiar with all the tasks that a researcher who works in Academia performs. I am mostly referring to the preparation of publications, the participation in conferences, teaching activities and so on. However, the last years, we can observe that more and more companies are hiring people that have a PhD degree, for strategic positions. In addition, several PhDs are pursued in applied fields and are directly connected with work that is undergoing in industry.

Any suggestions for future graduates? Something they should be doing while they are still in university getting their degree.

By doing several internships starting from the first years of their studies, they will have the opportunity to discover several fields of our profession. Therefore, they may consider this option. In this way, they can explore which branches of chemical engineering, they like the most and further on deepen their knowledge in these fields during the last years of their studies.

What skills should they focus on during university years? It depends on which career path they want to follow. Our profession offers a very broad career spectrum. From the different types of industries that we can be absorbed to several research areas that our curriculum is useful. For this reason, given that it is hard to decide already from the degree years which path to follow, I think that developing wet lab skills as well as coding and programming skills would be beneficial.
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