At the age of four years she got her hands on a microscope for the first time and investigated dirty water together with other children – today Cecilia Poletti is a successful materials scientist at TU Graz.
News+Stories: At the beginning of the year you won of the research prize of the Austrian Society for Metallurgy and Materials ASMET and Austrian Science Fund FWF, in total 300,000 euros. What are you planning to do with the research money?
Cecilia Poletti: I am working with 13 colleagues in the Modelling and Simulation research group at the Institute of Materials Science, Joining and Forming. We concentrate on thermodynamic processes of alloys. We are two professors, three postdocs and four doctoral candidates in the group. Of these, one postdoc and one doctoral candidate will participate in my ASMET project. Its title is “Flow localizations and flow instabilities of alloys”. Its scheduled full term is three and a half years.
What exactly is the project about?
Cecilia Poletti: Although it is clearly fundamental research, the application in industrial forging processes is also a key issue. Think of it like this. If forging processes are carried out at very high temperatures, the material undergoes ideally a smooth and homogeneous deformation. The outcome should be a material of a certain shape and with specific properties. However, heat makes the material softer. Striving to obtain a higher strength of the end product, the material is deformed at the lowest possible temperature and as quickly as possible.
In the worst case you may end up with a workpiece that has broken into two separate parts, or with a big crack in the workpiece, instead of the right shape and properties.
However, this may lead to an irregular deformation of the metal, softening of certain areas and fracture. In the worst case you may end up with a workpiece that has broken into two separate parts, or with a big crack in the workpiece, instead of the right shape and properties. If this crack is only superficial you may be able to repair the workpiece, but if it goes further down you have to go back and start again from square one.
Our idea is to find the right process parameters – i.e. the pressing speed and the temperature window – to prevent such flow instabilities.
Where exactly does your interest in materials science come from?
Cecilia Poletti: Actually it was a very long journey! I grew up in Argentina and my father was a chemist. When I was four years old, I got hold of a microscope for the first time, and I had lots of fun with it. Although we only looked at dirty water when we were children (laughs).
When I was four years old, I got hold of a microscope for the first time.
Later on I contemplated studying different subjects such as chemistry, astronomy or paleontology. If I hadn’t decided for materials science, I am sure that I would have found some other obsession (laughs). In my hometown I finally went for process engineering. When it came to writing my thesis I was given the opportunity to go abroad – to Vienna. This is where I came across materials science for the first time. I love the interdisciplinarity and diversity in this subject – all researchers bring a different scientific background to the work and are able to contribute without being cut off from their roots.
Apropos diversity: There are not many women in materials science. What is the reason?
Cecilia Poletti:I don’t know exactly. I myself have neither experienced discrimination nor felt excluded, but if you go to a conference you are bound to notice that there are hardly any women researchers in this area. There are only a few women who start studying this subject to start with, and many of them then somehow get “lost” on the way. In the end, there are hardly any women left in leading positions at all. I believe that this also has something to do with role models. A young woman who sees that there are no women in this job is bound to ask herself whether there will be a place for her. This is why I am trying to be at every presentation and focus on contacts with women students to show them that there really is place for them.
A young woman who sees that there are no women in this job is bound to ask herself whether there will be a place for her.
And of course the way you are brought up also plays an important role. My brother and I had every opportunity as children – both of us were given Barbie dolls as well as trucks to play with. I often wonder why a girl who only ever played with Barbie dolls should all of a sudden start to “play” with cars and decide for a technical career later on. It also depends on role models, the people you look up to, and your options as a child. Of course, it is easy for me now: I have a son (laughs)! But I’ll keep all the doors open for him as well. I don’t specifically try to get him interested in technology.
My brother and I had every opportunity as children – both of us were given Barbie dolls as well as trucks to play with.
It is not only a gender-related problem, though – diversity in general is quite rare, even if we think of different opinions, origins and religions. However, for research in particular it is very important that there is a diversity of opinions, approaches and points of view. People always think that research is purely about facts, but a lot also depends on individual personalities and above all the ideas of the researchers.
However, for research in particular it is very important that there is a diversity of opinions, approaches and points of view.
Is your job creative?
Cecilia Poletti: Yes, it is. I can be as creative as I want to be – only we impose limits on ourselves, they don’t come from the outside. Of course there are unshakable insights and fixed rules, but we also have freedom working. For example, the hard technical data always have to be interpreted, which gives us the chance to contribute our own approaches and introduce our points of view. Most of all you can be very creative when it comes to asking questions – like the people who really did discover something important. Whether I will be able to do this as well depends solely on my own creativity and the questions I ask – we can all see the same things with our eyes, but whether I make a discovery or not depends only on me and the questions I ask.
We can all see the same things with our eyes, but whether I make a discovery or not depends only on me and the questions I ask.
And I can choose the methods very creatively, for example I can apply methods from another area and see what happens. It is always about the why, what and how. We are only limited by our minds.
What do you do to clear your mind?
Cecilia Poletti:I like nature, I love cycling and I go hiking a lot – I walk off wherever the train or bus takes me. And I like travelling. In Europe you have to travel – there is so much to see, to taste, to get to know and to breathe in! This is why I chose Europe at the time. You get everything here – Mozart and Käsekrainer (a type of sausage filled with cheese) for example (laughs).
Of course I can never leave my job behind entirely. The materials always catch up with me – they are everywhere, all around us! Our world is a very materialistic world in the true meaning of the word.
Cecilia Poletti studied process engineering in Argentina and then went to the Technical University of Vienna to write her thesis, where she worked for eight years in materials science. Six years ago she changed to TU Graz. She became a member of the management of the “Advanced Materials Science” Field of Expertise five years ago and will be in charge of it – in line with the internal rotation system – next year. At the beginning of the year she won the research prize of the Austrian Society for Metallurgy and Materials ASMET in cooperation with the Austrian Science Fund FWF, endowed with 300,000 euros, for the project application concerning the “flow instabilities” project.
Maria Cecilia POLETTI Assoc.Prof. Dr.techn. Institute of Materials Science, Joining and Forming Kopernikusgasse 24/I 8010 Graz, Austria Phone: +43 316 873 1676 firstname.lastname@example.org