“I will focus on the development of new materials that might be used in the electronics of the future thanks to their conductivity and their magnetic properties,” explains Lenka Štacková from Masaryk University. Lenka will be spending a year as a member of the research group headed by Professor Juríček at the University of Zurich in Switzerland – thanks to the stipend awarded to her by the Experientia Foundation.
Why did you decide to apply for the Experientia Foundation’s award?
I have known about the Experientia Foundation practically since its inception. Two former colleagues of mine from Professor Klán’s group, Tomáš Slanina and Tomáš Šolomek, received stipends before me. There are also two other stipend holders, Lukáš Maier and Václav Havel, working at the same institute, so I had plenty of information about the foundation. I really do like the story behind the Experientia Foundation.
You received a stipend for a one-year stay in Professor Juríček’s group at the University of Zurich. How did you come to choose this group?
There were several aspects that influenced my decision. I didn’t want to go to the US, and I didn’t want to work in a large group. Professor Juríček heads a comparatively small group, just ten people, and he really makes time for his students – they have frequent and extensive discussions together. Occasionally he even goes to the lab himself to do his own syntheses. I hope to learn a great deal from him. Another criterion was the topic, and Professor Juríček does some very interesting materials chemistry. I went to visit his lab in Zurich, and my former colleague Tomáš Šolomek had also completed his research stay with Professor Juríček, again thanks to an Experientia Foundation award, so I had a good idea of what to expect.
What does this mean for you personally?
I am of course absolutely delighted. My husband and I are both chemists, so we have been trying to work out how to be in the same place at the same time, which is not easy. My husband has applied for a Swiss grant and we are still waiting for the results, so I hope things will work out for us.
Do you have any recommendations for other stipend applicants? How would you rate the application process?
They should give it a try; they have nothing to lose. They can only gain. The whole process is simple compared to other grant applications. There is no unnecessary admin, it’s really just about your project.
How long did it take you to prepare the project?
I had been in touch with Professor Juríček since last October, but I didn’t decide whether I really wanted to submit the proposal until the end of the year. Writing up the project took about a month and a half. The most important thing is the idea itself. Writing it up is the least time-consuming part.
What are your expectations?
I’m looking forward to the change of environment. I have been at Masaryk University for twelve years now. In our lab, I am the person everyone asks where things are and how things are done. I look forward to new challenges and new people, and I hope to learn a great deal.
LIKE PANCAKES STUCK TOGETHER WITH JAM
What will you focus on during your research stay?
I will be working on the development of new materials. Specifically, on the synthesis of molecules containing phenalenyl units, which are structures that contain a delocalised radical. Because of that delocalised radical, they form what is called a “pancake” bond – not a typical covalent bond between two atoms, but a multicentre bond. This phenomenon should allow molecules to self-assemble into highly organised 2D and 3D structures, which chemists call covalent organic frameworks.
In lay terms, you can imagine the phenalenyl-containing molecules as pancakes that have been stuck together with jam – the multicentre bond – and this allows them to form other structures.
What makes these new materials unique and what are their applications?
Covalent organic frameworks are characterised by high porosity and density. Thanks to the embedded phenalenyl units, they acquire magnetic and conductive properties. This new generation of materials could be used in electronics, spintronics (which combines the electrical properties of materials used in conventional transistors with the material’s quantum spin properties – author’s note) and in the future, for example, in superfast computers.
What is the current state of knowledge about these materials?
This is a very innovative, novel, project – I am not aware of anyone having worked on anything similar before. We need to determine the properties of these materials and see whether we are able to create this kind of organic framework and whether it works the way we imagine it. On paper, it looks clear and simple, but once you try to bring it to the real world, all sorts of complications can arise. The synthetic part of the project will be the easy part. The bigger unknown is the self-organisation of molecules and the formation of the frameworks.
SYNTHETIC CHEMISTRY IS LIKE COOKING
Have you liked chemistry since childhood?
I couldn’t stand biology and chemistry in primary school, but in secondary school we had a great teacher. Since I never enjoyed memorising things, I knew that Czech and history would never be my favourite subjects. So what remained was physics, biology and chemistry. And, well, I couldn’t really see myself as a Faculty of Mathematics and Physics type, so biology and chemistry remained.
Why did you choose organic chemistry and researching new materials in particular?
Materials have a future. My path to organic chemistry was gradual. At first, I trained to be a biology and chemistry teacher, but I abandoned biology very quickly, because you have to memorise so much. In chemistry, conversely, it’s about fifty-fifty; there are things you just have to learn, but many others that you have to understand and be able to apply in practice. I like it that organic chemistry is probably the most difficult of the chemical disciplines, but also the most universal. In organic chemistry, you put all the other disciplines to use as well – you have to be an analytical chemist, because you have to be able to analyse all the substances you cook up; you have to be a physical chemist so that you understand why this or that happens, etc. And I really enjoy that.
What does your work in the laboratory look like?
I do a lot of synthetic chemistry, which, to exaggerate just a little, is a sort of cooking, just using different ingredients – chemicals rather than food. And just like in cooking, where you prepare the final dish from basic ingredients, in the lab, I prepare complex chemical molecules from simpler ones.
Do you like to cook in everyday life?
I do, but I much prefer baking.
I know you bake gingerbread cookies. How did that come about?
By chance. Once, in secondary school, I wanted to make an Advent wreath, and I thought I might make it from gingerbread. The first attempt looked awful, but I gradually came to understand that the be-all and end-all of the decoration was getting the consistency of the icing right. Similarly, in chemistry, if you don’t start with good materials, you can’t do anything about it, and the same goes for decorating.
What else do you do in your free time?
I danced in a folk ensemble for twelve years. And I do enjoy sports a lot: going to the gym, swimming, and skiing and snowboarding in the winter.
What do you enjoy about science?
That you never know how things will turn out. They always look clear and simple on paper, but in the real world it’s a different story. And I like it that I’m doing something that no one has done before, so I’m creating new information. My results can inspire other scientists: we pool and complement our knowledge, inspire one another, and create human knowledge.
What do you do when things are not going well?
I am guided by a very general principle – just keep going. You ultimately figure out 90% of your problems. The question is how long it takes and whether it’s worth it, so it might sometimes be better to give up on a project. I also work on several projects at the same time, so I always have at least one that is successful and working on it gives me a break from those that are not going so well at any given moment.
What are you planning next?
The most immediate plan is my one-year research stay in Zurich and then I will see. I would like to start a family, which is rather complicated to combine with organic chemistry. I want to stay in science in the future and perhaps start my own group. I like the freedom that in a way you can do almost everything you want and do what you enjoy. The other less pleasant side is securing funding. But I think it’s worth the effort for the freedom and self-realisation it brings.
studied organic chemistry at the Faculty of Science of Masaryk University in Brno. In 2019, under the leadership of professor Petr Klán, she defended her dissertation on the topic of the development of photoactivatable compounds. She currently works as a postdoc at the RECETOX (Research Center for Toxic Compounds in the Environment) at Masaryk University. She received a scholarship of 1,260,000 CZK from the Experientia Foundation, thanks to which she will spend a year at the University of Zurich in the group of professor Juríček.