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GREECE: Bright new star in scientific firmament

Most people would need a lifetime to achieve what Katerina Aifantis has done at 24 years of age: she has a PhD, a long list of publications in authoritative international scientific journals and is working with five research professors in as many countries. Clearly, she is no ordinary girl. In addition, she has just received €1.13 million from the European Research Council (ERC) to carry out research in nanotechnology, beating over 9,000 other hopefuls in her first attempt – and becoming the youngest ever researcher in the world to do so.

The ERC’s citation reads: “…she has a very high potential to become an independent researcher, a leader in spite of her limited experience. She also has some personal characteristics that are worth pointing out, such as ambition, energy, imagination and optimism, which are the very traits of a promising young star. In other words, she has demonstrated great potential to become a world-class scientist.”

Katerina admits to being surprised by her own success.

“I am not a killjoy or a bookworm. I did not study harder than anyone else and I was always surprised that I always came top of the class,” she laughs. She is sociable and goes to parties but approaches life with a certain seriousness and maturity. Her motto is: pan metron ariston, which means try everything in moderation.

Katerina spent her school years shuttling between Greece and America but instead of disrupting her development, this frequent change of environment seems to have enhanced it. At the age of 16, while still in high school, she was accepted by the Michigan Technological University and completed her studies in three years. Then, with a scholarship from the USA National Institute of Sciences, she went to Cambridge for post-graduate studies and in 2005, at the tender age of 21, received her PhD from the University of Groningen, becoming the youngest person to get a doctorate in Holland.

Now researching at Harvard University, Katerina will shortly return to her native Greece. At the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, her research work will be entitled: “Probing the micro-nano transition: Theoretical and experimental foundation, simulation and application.” In layman’s terms, this means she will explore the possibility of creating tiny lithium batteries that could be implanted in computer chips or directly into the head or heart of human patients.

At the moment, pacemakers for heart patients are cumbersome with their large batteries. Katerina’s tiny batteries could make the lives of these sufferers much more comfortable. In the brain, patients could also benefit from tiny batteries to re-energise damaged cells.

“We could all do with these brain batteries,” she giggles, showing her girlish sense of humour.

Katerina has been fortunate to have her talent recognised early and to have been given the opportunity to work with well known specialists. She has published joint papers with leading lights, including Professors John Willis of Cambridge, Jeff de Hosson of Groningen, John Dempsey of New York, Alexei Romanov from St Petersburg, Alfonso Ngan from Hong Kong, Steve Hackney from Michigan and also lecturer Avraam Constantinidis from Thessaloniki.

Professor Fotis Kafatos, President of the ERC, with a budget of €7.5 billion, was searching for young scientists for his Programme IDEAS. He described Katerina as “a very talented young female scientist, who not only earned her PhD at the age of 21 but also published several interesting papers in highly reputable scientific journals, such as the Journal of Mechanics and Physics, The Philosophical Magazine, Acta Materiala and the International Journal of Plasticity. In some sense, she is probably in a league of her own right now.”

Despite enjoying so much early recognition, Katerina keeps her feet firmly planted on the ground and those who know her say her success has not gone to her head. She says her ambition is to make Greece an international research centre for nanotechnology and to be as useful as possible to the community. “It’s my ambition to make people’s lives easier and happier that drives me forward,” she says with disarming innocence.

Asked if she expected her academic success to lead to riches, she says: “The last thing that interests me is the money. If I was interested in money, I would not have made my research public so everyone could share it. I would have taken it to the biomedical or car industry; kept it secret and let them exploit it. By publishing the research, I am sharing it with everyone and I hope this will be useful for the community.”

If clever parents have clever children and the home environment counts for something, then Katerina was destined to do well, if not become a wunderkind.

She grew up in what could be described as an intellectual hothouse. Her father, Elias Aifantis, is a professor of mechanics, her mother, Maria Bologianni, is an artist whose paintings hang in the Greek National Gallery and her brother Elias is a promising musician. She herself plays the piano and enjoys classical music and opera.

Avraam Constantinidis, a lecturer at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and a family friend, says: “I have known Katerina since 1996, when I became a postgraduate student, working for my PhD under her father’s supervision. Katerina grew up in her father’s environment, interacting with his students, his visitors and world-known scientists.

“Katerina has an interesting but complex personality. She is extremely fair and does not take advantage of other people. She believes deeply in God and the Greek tradition, all the way from classical Greece to the Hellenic and Byzantine periods, as well as Greek Orthodoxy. She has great respect for goodness.”
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