Professor Marcela Bilek, physicist

Marcela Bilek

Professor Marcela Bilek received a BSc (Hons) from the University of Sydney in physics and computer science. While studying, she spent a year at the IBM Asia-Pacific Headquarters in Tokyo, Japan, working on computer networks.

After completing a PhD in engineering at the University of Cambridge, she remained there as a research fellow at Emmanuel College. During this time she continued her research and established collaborations with a number of international institutions. These include Technische Universität Hamburg-Harburg, where she developed an undergraduate degree program in general engineering science and the Plasma Applications Group at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, USA, where she investigated pulsed vacuum arc plasma deposition and ion implantation techniques.

In November 2000 she became Professor of Applied Physics at the University of Sydney. Her research interests include plasma processing of materials and how new technologies might be applied to produce biocompatible materials.

Interviewed by Ms Marian Heard in 2001.


A strategic family move to Australia

Marcela, you came to Australia as a young child. What led to that?

I was born in Prague, in the Czech Republic, in January 1968. The Prague Spring was in full swing that year. Alexandr Dubček was putting in a lot of reforms (similar to those of Gorbachev later on in the Soviet Union) to free up the economy – still under a Communist regime but with freedom of speech coming in. But the Soviet Union, understandably, felt threatened. They certainly didn't want to lose the Eastern European countries as a buffer zone between their border and the West. So in August 1968 – although I can't remember it, being then only a few months old! – the Russians invaded, removed Dubček and his group of leaders, and put in their own puppet regime.

My mother and I were in Prague when that happened, but my father was not. He used to sell Czech machinery, doing commercial deals overseas, and fortunately he was in Bangkok at the time. And because my mother still had the right to go out and see him, that is just what she did.

After we had been in Bangkok for a while, however, my father was recalled to Prague. He certainly wasn't an ideological Communist, and he was quite outspoken about his views, so he realised it would be dangerous for him and also his family if he went back. I'm sure we wouldn't have had a good education had we grown up there, because of my father's attitudes to the political situation. Actually, his mother, from Prague, helped to prompt the decision not to go back. Although she knew she would never see him again, she said that to stay away would be better for him. So my parents applied for political refugee status in Australia – immigration. We arrived here when I was almost five, almost ready to start school.

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Firm, broad foundations for lifelong interests

Would you say your parents laid the foundations for your interest in science?

Not particularly in science, but in the quest for knowledge, in wanting to learn about how the world works and to understand what makes things tick. I guess science encompasses that. Definitely my father was always interested in that sort of thing, and in educating us.

We'd go hiking with my father quite often when we were young, and during these walks he'd ask us, 'Why do you think this happens? How does this work?' and he wouldn't always give us an answer. He'd say, 'No, no, you have to go look it up.' He speaks a number of languages, and he would use words in English that we didn't understand. We'd say, 'What does that mean?' and he'd say, 'Well, go look it up.' He was teaching us to do our own research, our own problem-solving.

I think my parents also laid the foundations for my strong interest in outdoor activities. There was the hiking, and we had a caravan and a boat – my parents would take us out to Wyangala Dam, where we spent every school holidays and did a lot of outdoor activities. And I just kept doing that.

I loved bushwalking, and abseiling – I joined a group when I was a teenager, and I actually taught abseiling in the Bicentennial program. Also, when I went to Japan I took up mountain-climbing. Cycle touring is great, as well; I did a lot of that to get round and see Europe.

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Options and opportunities in education

When you started primary school in Sydney, how did you cope with not being able to speak English?

Fairly well, I think. I don't remember having a problem with it. But I do remember that I was sometimes confused as to why my comrades at school could understand some things that I said but not others – I was obviously starting to speak a mixture of Czech and English. My father could understand English and my mother was gradually learning it, so we used dual languages at home.

What influence did your teachers have?

I think my high school teachers were particularly important. I had excellent teachers for chemistry, physics and mathematics: probably the core subjects in establishing my future interests and career. They certainly weren't put off by the fact that I would often ask questions that they didn't know the answers to. They would go through the books and try and explain them. My high school years were a really good experience.

You then enrolled in a combined science and law degree at the University of Sydney, but after one year converted to just science. Why was that?

It was basically because, as the degree progressed, you had to narrow down the number of subjects that you took. In the first year it was four, so I had three science subjects and one law subject. To maintain a science–law degree I had to continue with a law subject, and that meant I would have to select a science subject to remove. But I was very interested in the science subjects, and I didn't want to remove any of them. I discovered that the one I really wanted to remove was law, so I dropped that and continued with mathematics, physics and computer science.

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An undergraduate side-step into Japan

You topped your course, and after your second year IBM offered you a job in Japan. That must have been a wonderful experience.

Going to Japan was a real windfall. As soon as I got the letter I knew I wanted to go, because I'd always been interested in other cultures and particularly some of the Asian cultures.

So I intermitted my degree after the second year and spent a year in IBM's Asia–Pacific headquarters in Tokyo, working on computer networks. I helped them transfer their whole accounting base from Japan to an American headquarters, which involved quite a lot of work in software as well as some of the hardware features.

And in Japan you found time to do things outside your work.

Yes. I wasn't going to waste a minute while I was over there. Mountain-climbing with the club which I joined was a great experience. Not only did I get to climb some of the most beautiful mountains in Japan, but it helped me to progress quite quickly with my Japanese – I was often stuck on cliff faces or on iced-over cliffs with somebody yelling instructions at me in semi‑Japanese English, and so I thought, 'Better learn Japanese quickly.'

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An Honours thesis in electron microscopy

After that year in Japan, you came back to the University of Sydney and finished your degree, majoring in physics and computer science. What work did you do next, for your Honours?

The Honours in physics at that time was half by coursework – for which I did a number of courses, mostly compulsory but some elective – and half by thesis. For the thesis, actually, I worked in the Electron Microscope Unit; I was 'outsourced' from Physics. I worked on electron microscopy on a technique for studying heterostructures (basically very thin layers of alternating materials) which Telstra was interested in at the time for communications devices.

Part of the project was computational as well. In the electron microscope, the electrons are dispersed and the signal is coming from a volume that is larger than a point source. To analyse an interface, which could be stepped or could be smeared, you need to remove or deconvolve that. My computational side was to try and determine what the scale of that was, with the aim of removing it from the image so we could see what the real interfaces looked like.

Why is this work important?

It is important in electronic device applications. These devices operate quite differently, depending on whether the interface is sharp or is actually smeared or graded. We wanted to make techniques by which we could make precisely the interfaces required for the optimum device operation.

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Another stimulating interlude in the world of industry

What did you do after Honours?

I decided that I wanted some time out in industry, to see my work applied to something. I knew that I would want to come back and do a PhD, but not straight away, not until I had seen what the application of science out in the real world was like. So I sent out letters to various companies and other institutions in Australia who I knew were doing research work and would employ people at my level. I got a number of offers, including from BHP, CRA and the Defence Science Technology Organisation (DSTO). I ended up going to the CRA site in Melbourne – at that time called Comalco Research Centre – basically because the project I would be working on was in aluminium smelting and the work I would be doing was to try and make smelting cells more efficient. This was particularly attractive because of my interests in the environment and in preserving it: aluminium smelting is a very high energy-usage industry, and small savings there would translate to very large savings in total electricity consumption by these plants.

Did you find that working in industry was quite different from being in a university?

In some ways, yes. It can be great working in industry, providing that your research goals are aligned with those of the company. When I started, that was definitely the case and it was an exciting area in which to do research work. But of course that can change if the company, for example, gets bought out by somebody else and suddenly the aims change. I know that this happened after I left, and a lot of my colleagues, to their frustration, have found that suddenly their research is stopped and they are asked to do something else.

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To Cambridge for a PhD and plenty of exercise

After 2½ years in Melbourne working for Comalco, you won a scholarship to the University of Cambridge to do your PhD. What did you work on there?

On a similar area, but moving a little bit to the plasma side. I was constructing systems to manipulate plasma beams so that we could extract the right sort of densities and the right sort of ion energies to make structures such as those I'd been looking at in my Honours year. I was looking in particular at making amorphous silicon, for silicon transistors, and I studied quite closely a system called a vacuum cathodic arc. That is a metal-based plasma system, based on striking an electronic spark between a metal cathode and an anode. And then I worked on using magnetic fields to bend the beam and manipulate it and select the appropriate energies for the depositions.

In Cambridge, as in Japan, there would have been some recreational experiences.

Yes. I really enjoyed being in Cambridge. It is a very small town but it is full of international students and international scholars, so it was an incredibly rich cultural environment, with every activity under the sun – there was a club for absolutely everything. For a while I actually rowed. But I wasn't keen on the 5.30 am practice sessions, particularly in winter when it was snowing outside and we weren't allowed to wear gloves because we couldn't hold the oars. So after a term I decided to give that a miss.

But I still needed to have some exercise, having grown up in Australia and always having been outdoors – cycling, hiking. Suddenly it was too cold in England for these activities, so I thought I'd look for something indoors.

I discovered a ballroom dancing club and went along to one of the sessions to see what it was like. But it happened to be a selection session for the ballroom dancing team that would represent the university. They slapped a number on my back and said, 'Get out there,' and out I went. I had done some ballet before, so I had fairly good poise and I was able to spin. That seemed to be enough – the boys just threw you around – and I got selected for the team. It was great. I had a wonderful time doing that. The hard training gave me the exercise I wanted, and it was an opportunity to travel around: we competed all over England and also had some trips to America through that.

As I mentioned, I did some cycle tours too. When my research was going on track – which I made sure it was, because I definitely wanted to do these tours – I would take a month off for a trip somewhere in Europe. For my longest trip I started in Prague (to go back to my roots) and cycled into Poland, across the southern end of Poland down into Slovakia, through Slovakia in a zig‑zag across the mountains down into Hungary and then out through the northern part of Hungary into Austria, and back again to Prague – about 2500 kilometres in total. With four of us, that took a month.

A collaborative project with an outstanding mentor

After your PhD you stayed on in Cambridge with a research fellowship.

Yes. I was keen to stay on in the Cambridge work environment, so towards the end of my PhD I applied to a number of the colleges for a research fellowship. And I was successful at the one I really wanted, Emmanuel College. It's the most beautiful college, in central Cambridge and only about 30 seconds from the bus station – which suited me fine, because I started to do a lot of international work and often had to go to the airport. With the research fellowship I could stay on, continuing my research, and also establish a number of collaborations and so on in the international work.

The biggest of those collaborations – at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, in the US – ran for about four years and I am still working with the same people, the Plasma Applications Group. That was headed by Ian Brown, an Australian scientist who has been in the US for about 40 years and is married to an American. I met him at a conference and he was quite interested in the work that I was doing, and the equipment that he had complemented very much what I was doing in Cambridge. I didn't have access to the same equipment, so I would spend three to four months a year over there working with that group, and then I would take the data back and write papers with Ian from Cambridge.

I was of the view that when I worked in somebody's laboratory I should always put their name on whatever paper I wrote, even if they weren't particularly involved in the research. And of course I would take it over for them to read. But I remember that when I brought one to Ian with my name and his name on it, his response was, 'Oh, that's so kind of you! You don't need to do this. I didn't really contribute.' I respect him very much for that attitude.

Would you say that Ian Brown was an important mentor for you?

Yes. Obviously there were many, but he does stand out. He was certainly very encouraging all the way through. I still communicate with him and work with him, and send him grant applications, for example, for his comments.

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Interplays of teaching, learning and communication

And you spent a year in Germany as well?

That's right. The specific job in Germany was to formulate and set up a course called General Engineering Science, which was to be taught in English. I took up the position because I felt that at that point in my career I probably could use some teaching experience. In Cambridge I had done some supervision of students, and tutorials and the odd lecture here and there, but I was always provided with the materials up front and I knew exactly what to do, and so it was minimal work. I had no idea what I was in for in Germany: preparing all the courses from scratch and then teaching them all as well was a terrible workload, really difficult. But I'm glad I did it. It was good experience.

You also completed a MBA part-time. What made you do this course?

Basically, while I was working in Cambridge I could see a pattern – which I think was happening in all the institutions I was involved with – of pressure to earn money from outside, from industry, as opposed to the regular government-funded research. Most of the departments I was working in were actually successful in establishing some sort of a contract with a company. (For example, I was involved in one with Motorola, in the US.) So the establishment wasn't the problem. But there were often serious problems in completing the project, sometimes so bad that there would be negative statements afterwards.

The companies would say, 'We're not going to work with these people again. They didn't deliver on what we expected.' Having looked at how that was proceeding, I discovered that really the problem was the communication aspect. In a sense, the two sides weren't speaking the same language. And the researchers went away with a bad feeling, thinking, 'How do they expect us to do what they want when they didn't tell us?' Both sides felt they had been short-changed, and it was simply because the communication wasn't good enough. So I thought the only way to solve this was to learn the business language, to speak 'Business', if you like. That was my motivation for doing the MBA.

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Coming to terms with challenges

After Cambridge you had a number of options. Why did you choose to return to Australia and take up the Chair of Applied Physics at the University of Sydney?

The biggest factor was that my parents were here, and having been away from them for 10 years – if you count the time in Melbourne as well as overseas – I hadn't really seen them very much. The small breaks I had didn't often give me time to fly back to Australia, so I would end up going to my relatives in Prague instead. I realised my parents weren't getting any younger and it would be nice to spend some time with them.

The appointment itself was very prestigious. You are the first female professor in physics at Sydney University, and to achieve this at only 32 is remarkable. Has the combination of being young and female caused any additional challenges for you?

Certainly no challenges in the way of discrimination. I have never, throughout my whole career, felt discriminated against. But it has, I suspect, increased the workload above what it would have been if I had been male. For example, there are rules that on selection committees you need to have a woman, and as there are so few women in physics I get a lot of phone calls from our university and others to sit on selection committees and to do other such tasks.

Do you find challenges in juggling your research, teaching and administrative roles?

Just that there's too much work altogether! The really unfortunate thing is that the teaching and administration tasks – which have immovable deadlines – always take priority. Lectures have to be given on certain dates, marks have to be in; similarly, administrative tasks have to be done, otherwise things don't proceed. So it's the paper-writing and the research that get shelved. I'm still coming to terms with how to get around that, because I certainly don't want my research to suffer.

Your work is clearly a very important part of your life. Are you still able to pursue any of your other interests?

I still am interested in dancing, but now I do it only socially. My workload makes it totally impractical to compete. Cycling and hiking are still things I like very much, and camping out, a bit of horse-riding, that sort of thing, although I get to do that less and less nowadays.

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Exciting prospects in biophysics

What research are you currently working on?

I have a number of projects going. I have just received an Australian Research Council Discovery Grant (which until recently would have been called a Large Grant) for a project in biomaterials, so again in the area of plasma processing of materials. I am looking at using very high biases, very high-energy ions, to produce films and materials that are biocompatible and also very robust, able to stay on the substrates. That is important for coating devices that go into the body, like artificial hearts, artificial hips, those kinds of things.

Biophysics is new and very exciting, and research in various areas of it is happening around the world. Would you say you were up with that game?

Well, I'm certainly interested in getting into that game, which is an important one in pushing the frontiers of medicine. All these devices are significant in prolonging lives. For example, even though we can do heart transplants, there are not enough organs to go round and people are still dying. If we had a pump to implant as an artificial heart, for example, it could save a lot of lives.

Of course, I don't have a biological background, but I am working very closely – on a number of projects – with people who do have that but not the physics background. It's certainly very exciting for me, because I am learning a lot about the bio area that I didn't know. Actually, I like projects where I learn as I go.

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Nurturing an inherited project

I think another of your current research projects involves vacuum-glazing. That is now being sold as a commercial product, isn't it?

Yes. The vacuum-glazing is not so much my project as one I have inherited from my predecessor, Professor Collins. It is basically his work at the University of Sydney, where he developed this technology over some 20 years while he was Professor of Applied Physics.

Essentially, two panes of glass are brought together to be held about 0.2 millimetres apart by very small stainless steel pillars. The gap is then sealed on the outside and the air in it is removed. The idea is that a very good thermal insulator is formed. Most of the heat that escapes from buildings gets out through the windows, and this technique could be used to replace double-glazing in cold climates such as Europe. It is also very good as an insulator against noise. So it has a lot of applications.

It has found a market in Japan, where despite the relatively cold climate most of the buildings have single-glazing, without the wide frames to accommodate traditional double-glazing. A commercial product is being produced in Japan by Nippon Sheet Glass and being sold there, fairly successfully, under the trademark SPACIA. There are still technical problems or performance aspects, however, that require improvements before it can break into large markets like the US and Europe.

When I took on this professorship I had to decide whether to keep the project going or to stop it. I decided to keep it going, simply because it was starting to yield royalty returns and it finally had the potential to be a really important product in a number of large markets. I have kept on some postdocs who worked on it, and I'm continuing to push it through. I hope to see it become a very widely accepted product.

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Essential ingredients for science as a profession and a career

If students were thinking of a career in science, what skills would you advise them are most important for that?

It's certainly very important to be interested in knowledge and learning, if you are to do well in science, because it is about discovering things and developing things. To be a logical thinker is a help, and problem-solving is a paramount skill.

The main thing is probably inquisitiveness, the desire just to learn. The biggest challenge is communication, which is becoming more and more important with the trend towards having to work closely with industry.

Enrolments in physics, chemistry and mathematics have been declining. How might this be turned around?

From my experience in a number of different cultures I think the fundamental problem in cultures like Australia, the US and the UK is that there isn't a great deal of respect for science as a profession. It is highly respected in countries like India and China, and in Eastern Europe, where I've come from – and even more so in Germany. When the top students leave with their HSC score, they listen to what's around them. I was told, 'Oh, you've got to go into medicine. That's what somebody with your sort of score does.' The attitude here is that the way to success is through medicine, law or a high-flying business career. If we want to see more enrolments, particularly of the brighter students, we need society's perception to turn around to a view of science as a very important, interesting and well-regarded career. The key is communication with the community, for example through the sort of promotion work you are doing.

Are there exciting aspects of a career in science?

Definitely, especially the discovery element, the fact that we are doing work that we don't necessarily know the answer to. It is never repetitive – well, except for the admin tasks, but we cope with that. It is exciting to be working towards finding out the answers to how things work.

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The future as a voyage of discovery

Where do you see yourself in 10 years' time?

That's a difficult question, and had you asked me at any other time in my life I wouldn't have been anywhere near right. I've pretty much given up guessing!

I'll certainly be still doing some discovery sort of job, like the research. I love the fact that I am always learning in my job, and I'll be doing something like that. I really can't say whether I will stay in academia or go back to industry – I'll just follow the opportunities as they come. But it's got to be interesting.

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