Kateřina Falk


“Make sure you get enough rest. A tired brain cannot be creative”


Kateřina Falk, a leading Czech scientist

Kateřina Falk is a world-class scientist in the field of plasma physics. She now works at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf, where she received a 1.8 million EUR grant for six years, which will enable her to assemble her own team of scientists. She studied at Oxford and the Imperial College London in Great Britain, and she also previously worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the USA. I personally got to know Kateřina this year in January at the unique ELI Beamlines laser facility in Dolní Břežany. We met at an event held by Deloitte intended for top female manager. Katerina was invited to give a introductory talk about laser technology and she spoke with such enthusiasm and clarity that even the greatest amateurs understood the principles of lasers and their importance. Kateřina was invited to give an introductory talk about laser technology and she spoke with such enthusiasm and clarity that even the greatest amateurs understood the principles of lasers and their importance as the Royal Society considers laser to be the most important technological development of the 20th  century.

The entire lecture was given with great enthusiasm,. My fourteen-year-old daughter was able to observe it with me thanks to live streaming. Kateřina Falk, who is a world-leading scientist as well as a populariser of science, is an excellent role model for my daughter. According to research carried out by Microsoft, fewer girls are interested in mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and IT in the Czech Republic from a young age, and they lose interest much more quickly, compared to other European countries. Girls do not perceive a strong-enough connection between these subjects and their everyday lives. They lack support form their parents along with no proper role models that would lead them towards STEM careers. So I decided to bring my daughter to meet Katerina during the interview. But I had to wait until the middle of June, because Kateřina has recently moved to Dresden to start her own research group, although she returns to the Czech Republic regularly for research visits. We managed to discuss a wide range of topics during an interview that lasted just one hour: support for young women in science, popularisation of science, work on her new book, the particularities of leading a research team, the ability to endure in the field of science and, finally, the importance of relaxation in assuring higher quality outputs.

Kateřina, how did yesterday’s experiment go?

The laser broke down just before the end. It was like watching a thriller, all that suspense and then it just stopped. But it doesn’t matter, one of my post-graduate students will finish the experiment. This happens a lot in experimental physics; sometimes I feel as if I am always repairing something, rather than being able to devote my energy to actual science.

You don’t look too sad about it…

I actually enjoy fixing things; every problem can be overcome. Either by carrying out another experiment or thinking up a new solution. We actually changed our strategy in the middle of this experiment, and we decided to accelerate the electrons using a different method, but it still didn’t come out as I hoped.

I could ask whether finding new solutions keeps niggling at the back of your mind? How do you sleep after these experiments?

It is an issue, and I had a lot of problems with insomnia at university. That was when I learned to play relaxing music, and I trained my mind to go to sleep when Enigma came on. I now using meditation techniques and fall asleep while meditating, which is actually good. I do yoga regularly and even go to group classes; but I haven’t found a suitable place in Dresden just yet.

You yourself studied and worked in Great Britain and the USA. You married a Swede. You conduct your experiments in laboratories around the world. Where are you at home?

I am at home in Dresden. That is where my family, my kitchen and my bed are.

From the aspect of identity, do you define yourself as a Czech, a European or simply a scientist?

Well, I would begin with being a human. It took me a very long time before I began calling myself a scientist, about a year after I completed my doctorate. I am cosmopolitan; my daughter was born in the USA, she holds three passports and she is growing up in a fourth country. In this context nationality loses any importance. We speak four languages at home. I speak Czech to my daughter, my husband speaks Swedish, we speak English to each other and we use German at school or in the shops.

Your daughter is four years old. Can you already see whether she will be following in her parents’ footsteps? And would you want her to choose a career in science, when you know personally what scientific work on a first-class level entails?

We will see. Right now she likes trains, cars and horses. I believe that all paths are difficult if you want to do something on a high level. In contrast to others, she would already have a path well set up for he in science.. I observed that many female scientists that I have met in past actually had mothers who also were scientists. I would like her to do something she enjoys. My parents also chose this approach, which annoyed me at times, because I didn’t always specifically know what I wanted to do and I needed a little guidance. With regard to bringing up my daughter, we try to develop various interests and talents. We visit museums, we spend time in nature, we attend concerts and exhibitions. She will make her own choice when she is older.

In addition to being known for your research, you have also become a great role model for girls considering a career in science. What is your advice as a mentor to teenage girls?

Don’t be discouraged by the reactions of people around you. I can still remember when I was twelve and people asked me what I wanted to become. When I said “an astrophysicist” they responded – “a girl and physics?” They may have considered this an appreciation of my talent, but when you are 12 years old you don’t want to stick out at he weird one. So girls should get used to being “weirdoes” and be ok with it. They can wave at all the people who were surprised at their choice of career from Oxford one day.

Popularisation of science and its benefits is another hobby of yours. But you also do not like to split science into the traditional categories of fundamental and applied research.

I am just finishing a book titled “What’s new in physics” and I use several examples to demonstrate that traditional classification into basic and applied research is incorrect. The book will be released in September by the Nová Beseda publishers and will be an introduction to physics. I discuss various discoveriesin this book, including gravitational waves, neutrinos, exoplanets, and the Higgs’ boson. Then I use these to explain the basic principles of physics. Several Nobel Prizes were awarded for these discoveries and all lead to pracitcal applications. I conceptually structured the book as a map from basic research to applications, which will be followed by another round of basic research. The book is not long, but I try to give a rough outline of the connections within scientific research, where applied research could not exist without basic science. The laser itself is an example of fundamental research. It took only 10 years from the first quantum optics formulae scribbled on a blackboard to the construction of the first working laser. This device was then a major driving force behind the technological revolution of the 20th century. It is important to promote high-quality basic research which will naturally be followed by applications. We scientists travel into the absolute unknown and we cannot predict where this path will take us. If we draw a sharp line between fundamental and applied research, we just may destroy a lot of high-quality research before it began and with it all of the technological advances that my result from it.

You currently lead a research team in Dresden. We are conducting this interview for the Leaders Magazine. Is it difficult to lead scientists who are distinctive personalities and what type of leader are you?

I have been in the position of a group leader for just over three months and I look forward to taking the leadership course offered by the Helmholtz Young Investigator Group Leaders programme. Leadership is difficult and an individual approach is important. Scientists are naturally strong personalities, but I consider student training the greatest challenge in this line of work. Every scientist must bring up their team. Not just assemble it from random people and qualifications, but really devote time to it. If the leader of a team simply assigns tasks and then lets go, then the team starts to fall apart. You cannot do this in small teams or teams in the initial phase. We need the creativity and involvement of every individual. I also have foreign students, who do not speak very good English, which is another issue I must tackle specifically. I have students with very low selfesteem, which is typical for anyone who is just starting out. I have one student now who is really overwhelmed and beaking down a little and I have to calm and motivate him. But not every leader devotes so much energy to individual team members, so I dare to say that most research teams are dysfunctional.

Mentoring is currently becoming important in the field of education. Does mentoring work in science?

Mentoring is an integral and very important part of of the academic world. So yes, there are many mentoring programmes that come in all shapes and sizes in science and higher education. During my studies at Imperial I had a personal tutor assigned to me as did all the other students, who did not test my understanding of physics concepts, but was interested in me as a person. She always asked me how I was doing, about my successes or failures, and which future directions I am thinking about regarding my personal and career development. My most frequent advice to students is: rest plenty. Take time off, don’t work on weekends. A tired brain is a useless brain. It is incapable of doing anything at all. It can’t think creatively. I experienced two burnouts when I was working on my doctorate. A burnout was the moment of truth, indicating that I was not doing things right. Then I found a healthy routine. I finished work at six in the afternoon; on the way home I stopped to do some yoga and in the evening I may read an article, but no more late night hard core work. We started travelling to the mountains on the weekends. Funilly enough, I not only finished my doctorate faster than others, but I also managed to publish more.

We mentioned the Nobel Prize. Is this a scientist’s highest aspiration? What is the highest scientific goal?

It is for some, but not for others. It depends on what sort of people they are and what field they work in. The Nobel Prize is certainly not my highest aspiration. I consider doing science itself to be my goal. Right now I am working on electron diffraction and several other projects. My long-term goal is to stay in science. As the saying goes, I am not out of the woods yet.

You’ve shocked me now. Who else than you should manage to secure a position in science? Can society allow your talents to be squandered?

I am still waiting for a permanent position. This grant I received is an important step towards it, but when you look at the statistics just one out of every thousand students stays in science. The others end up in IT companies, banks or in start-ups. From a long-term perspective we are heading towards a major problem. Doctoral students are a cheap work force, a bit of a Taiwanese sweatshop for research. These students do all the hard work for pennies, while the fame goes to the group leaders, and they themselves have very little hope for future careers in academia. Apart from a few leadership positions, there is a serious lack of specialised positions for scientists with long-term prospects. Not everyone wishes to be a professor and be responsible for leadership of a research group. And definitely not everyone can spend their entire lives on one-year contracts and keep moving from country to country. But there is no alternative in current academic research. Science lives off short-term grants and there is no money for high-quality specialists who do not wish to lead teams. You can’t even usually complete a doctorate in three years. I think that there should be structural changes in science worldwide.

I’ll let my daughter ask some questions now: Lada Jirkalová asks: How many languages can you speak?

I speak fluent Czech and English, I can make myself understood in Swedish and Spanish and I am currently learning German. When I was thirteen I found a Czech-Polish dictionary in my grandfater’s bookcase and read it cover to cover. After visiting Poland years later, I found that I was really able to communicate in Polish. I am dyslexic, so I have to learn languages using alternative methods. I have to create my own mind maps that use languages that I already know to aid my memory. Standard teaching methods usually fail on me and I can definitely feel that it is more difficult for me to learn languages. I was very motivated to study abroad and learn other languages from very young age. I found student exchange and research programmes very useful for this. When I left for the UK at the age of 16, I managed to learn to speak English at native level, but my German will always sound a bit funny.

How long do your bussiness trips away from your family last?

Usually one to four weeks. Fortunately my new laser laboratory is right next to my office in Dresden, so there will be less travelling now. When I was working on my doctorate I was away from home for up to three months at a time. Sometimes I hopped across the globe for several experiments and conferences in a row; Japan to the US, then the UK, before returning back to the UK through France. But I can now also send my students so I don’t have to be away all the time. On the other hand, my daughter has a very good relationship with both her parents, which is normal in Sweden. But my daughter’s biggest pal is her grandfather.

What about safety and working with lasers?

You can loose your sight if careless. It is important to make sure you are wearing the correct protective equipment. Only recently a student wanted to look over my shoulder without putting goggles on when the laser was being fired. I sent him out of the laboratory with the comment that if he does not want to wear the laser goggles, he doesn’t have to bother coming in. Radiation levels due to material activation are also monitored, but the radiation hazard is not as great as on particle accelerators.

Kateřina, unfortunately it is time to conclude this interview and record your last words to readers of the Leaders Magazine.

There is a persistent idea that if a scientist does not sacrifice all his time that would normally be dedicated to personal life, including weekends, to science then they are a bad scientist. But scientists like that burnout and do become actually bad scientists. I try to disrupt these stereotypes. We spend the weekends on nature trips and I don’t work in the evening. And my results are better. This also answers any questions about how to combine demanding scientific career with motherhood: easily, there is plenty of time if you make it. A rested mind under no stress and plenty of time to wonder is the one that comes up with the greatest ideas.

By Linda Štucbartová