Ing. Soňa Hříbalová is a doctoral candidate in Prof. Willie Pabst’s research group at the Department of Glass and Ceramics. She leads the UCT Prague’s Survival Guide for Doctoral Candidates team, was a member of the university-wide Ethics Committee and the Faculty of Chemical Technology’s Academic Senate for over two years. She did two internships in Italy and, with a Fulbright-Masaryk scholarship, did an internship at Pennsylvania State University (Penn State, US). Internationally, she fosters collaboration with young researchers as part of the Young Ceramists Network. She has repeatedly received UCT Prague’s Votoček scholarship and also received a PRECIOSA Foundation scholarship, a Hans-Walter-Hennicke award, and the UCT Prague’s Rector’s Award in 2022.
You recently returned from your US scholarship. What kind of scholarship was it?
I received a Fulbright-Masaryk scholarship, a scholarship that supports excellent research intended for those who are dedicated to community engagement, which in my case was my advocacy for doctoral candidates, including in the Academic Senate. Within the European Ceramic Society, I am involved in the Young Ceramists Network that tries to connect young researchers in my field, which personally makes me very happy. I get to see how people develop relationships, how various collaborations start, and this in turn gives them the opportunity to continue to develop.
When I received the Fulbright-Masaryk scholarship description, including who it’s intended for, I thought that maybe it might work out. We didn’t have any US contacts in my research group, though, so I reviewed publications in my discipline and in related fields, and ended up at Penn State, where I studied the properties and degradation of ferroelectric thin films.
How difficult was the administrative process for the scholarship application?
Fulbright Czech Republic does absolutely amazing webinars, and I have to say that I’ve never experienced such great support, especially from the institution administering a scholarship. It was easy to call the Fulbright office and ask questions about the project application. The administrative process was more difficult for me after I got the scholarship, because I was doing an internship in Italy when the Fulbright results were announced. I was engaged, but my future husband and I wanted to go together, so our wedding took place a little bit earlier than we’d originally planned. Of course, we had to arrange all the documents, including those for our visas and medical documents, together with a tuberculosis test. Last summer was really busy for me.
What’s it like to be a PhD student in the US?
I don’t want to generalize, because here we rarely think about how diverse the US is. Here we sometimes think about the US as one homogenous country, but actually there are large cultural differences between regions. There are also differences in workplace culture. If I limit myself to Professor Susan Trolier-McKinstry's group at Penn State, it was very different from here. First, her research group is very large, so she has meetings with everyone, usually every two weeks, and these are really intensive half-hour meetings and you are required to present your new results—many of them.
When I show results to my mentor Willie Pabst in Prague, I just knock on the door and ask “Can I show you the data?” and we discuss measurements and next steps and it’s very spontaneous. I had to be prepared at Penn State, to show what I’d measured, how I’d interpret the results, and propose a clear plan for next steps. Doctoral training is therefore very different. In Czechia, we often are mentoring Bachelor and Master students to a certain extent, but I did not encounter this in my Penn State group (but I know from hearsay that it’s sometimes similar to the Czech experience in other research groups).
How did your US mentor find the time for regular meetings with every member of her large team?
There are several ways. First, she devoted time to this at the expense of personal time off. Second, everything is very efficient. I knew I had to come on time, that I had exactly half an every two weeks, and that during that time, I needed to discuss everything that was pending. I was able to discuss results more often, but this half hour was crucial. Here, my mentor is a kind of colleague; in the US, my mentor was more of a manager. So, what a Czech mentor would most likely discuss with me in detail, my US mentor would just say, “You’ll solve it, thank you”.
Is it possible to live when working so quickly and efficiently?
Yes and no. Sometimes it’s very exhausting; on the other hand, here we might not be aware that our time is also an investment and that it would be a shame to waste it. There, I often had to go beyond my comfort zone, to learn something completely new by myself (quickly). This took time and effort, but it pushed me to my personal limits. Significantly more independence and a willingness to learn new things is considered standard there.
On the other hand, in my experience, the atmosphere here is relatively relaxed, even when things are difficult. In my Czech group, I felt the family atmosphere starting from the very first day. There’s a pleasant atmosphere, a sense of togetherness and a sense of humour between group members, and I appreciate very much. In such an environment, however, one’s own internal motivation is very important.
So we get work-life balance right here, even if we complain, don’t we?
I would say that we’re closer than as we might think. For me personally, this is definitely the case. Of course, it’s a little different with every mentor, but in my case, my mentor knows that I work reliably, that I do my job, so he doesn’t need to interfere with how I spend my days at work. I value that kind of freedom very much.
Not everyone has that much self-discipline, though.
I am completely comfortable with an approach where I have a lot of freedom, and I have a mentor who trusts me and knows that he can count on me. I was already quite independent in high school. During my pre-university studies, thanks to a special programme and an individualized study plan, I also studied at the Secondary School of Fashion. At the beginning of each semester, I had a list of tests, assignments, and duties that I had to complete in each subject. I didn’t have to go to class, but I had to complete everything. In order to be allowed to keep an individualized study plan, I needed to have minimum a “B” (2.0) average. So I learned to be careful and not miss something, either by mistake or on purpose. Thanks to this experience, I suddenly gained an awful lot of freedom.
Independence goes hand in hand with freedom. Is there any difference between UCT Prague and Penn State?
I think PhD candidates in the US are more independent in their research. On the other hand, they are far less independent, if you can call it that, in terms of other things. For example, we have Internal Grant Agency projects, so we are used to writing grant applications, including budgets, starting in our first year of doctoral training. If we get a grant, we have to manage it, monitor budget expenditures, payment of bonuses, purchases of material, and writing of the final report. At Penn State, funding was primarily managed by group leaders. In general, though, I would say that at UCT Prague we are somewhat less independent as doctoral candidates.
How many course responsibilities do PhD candidates have at Penn State?
There is one huge difference in the system. At Penn State, after the equivalent of a Bachelor degree, you can go straight on to your doctoral studies. Doctoral students have to fulfil Master-level requirements, but without the need to submit a master thesis and then can engage in research in the same way as our doctoral candidates. Therefore, PhD s candidate study responsibilities cannot be directly compared.
In research there, the emphasis is on excellence. An example would be group meetings where one or two colleagues presented their work and the whole group had to ask questions and give feedback, including during a presentation. From my point of view, it was sometimes quite “brutal” and I can’t imagine this kind of thing in our Czech environment. It does, however, significantly improve the content and form of presentations and the research itself.
You probably didn’t have much time for your husband because of your demanding job. How did he manage and what was he doing there?
My husband, to my great fortune, is a programmer, and because of this, he can work remotely and mostly schedule his time as needed. He was sceptical about the trip first, but once we arrived in the US, he loved it there. The college town we lived in, State College, is located in the middle of Pennsylvania. The landscape there is a bit like Šumava, the Bohemian forest, and the campus was beautiful, just like in the movies. Everything was neat and clean and there were beautiful gardens in front of houses. Although I had much less free time there than here, I spent more time with my husband than in Prague, where both of us have many different activities. He took care of me and the house we rented there, which was incredibly helpful.
How was the return?
Home is home, I must emphasize that. I really love it here. It seems to me, though, that Czechs frown a lot. Before leaving, I heard several times people saying that people in the US are superficial because everyone there asks how you are and it doesn’t really mean anything. It doesn’t mean anything, but asking how you are is a polite form of greeting. It’s also polite to say that I’m fine, even if it’s not entirely true. Just because of this, a person is at least a little more positive for a moment than if they start complaining right away.
Complaining is typically Czech. Even if we’re better off here than in the US in some respects, we always frown, and that’s a shame. That’s why I think it’s great to experience everyday life abroad, because it’s refreshing to get beyond our gloomy mindset and to gain new perspectives. I honestly love to complain sometimes that everything is worth nothing and it’s all leading to Doomsday, but I’m aware that is important to keep these things in balance.
How was it going back to work?
I was really looking forward to returning to my research group, because I have great colleagues and because Professor Pabst is really the best mentor I can imagine for myself. I like that we achieve results have a relatively calm and fun atmosphere. I never go to work feeling nauseous.
If I were to be critical, I miss “US efficiency” a bit these days and I can’t get used to hearing only minimal criticism from my mentor. Constructive (even if sometimes unpleasant) feedback can inspire a person to progress a lot. Thanks to this, in the US, I learned in 3/4s of a year what would have taken me five years to learn here. I also miss working with an international team. What I struggle with after returning home is how to figure out work-life balance, because I like the fact that I can devote a lot of time to work and really get moving. On the other hand, I know that it’s not possible for me to work at this pace without a break. I know it’s not sustainable, at least in my case. So I’m looking for a balance between not being lazy and not going crazy.
Why did you decide to study chemistry?
I knew I wanted to study chemistry in high school, and at the Fashion School, we had material science as a subject. I really liked how small changes in the process, like how a thread is twisted or how a fabric is woven, can affect the overall properties of a material. Because of this, I went into Chemistry and Materials Technology, and still am, to a certain sense.
What is your research topic?
I basically have three main topics.
The first topic is the modelling of optical, electrical, mechanical, or thermal properties of metamaterials. This led me to light scattering prediction modelling for transparent ceramics. It is very theoretical work in which we have managed to correct and improve existing models for predicting, in simple terms, the degree of transparency of a ceramic depending on its microstructure.
Second, I am conducting research into piezoelectric ceramics based on KNN (KxNa1-xNbO3), which is a lead-free alternative to materials containing lead that are used today. We are primarily interested in the connections between composition, microstructure, and properties. We managed to establish an excellent collaboration on this topic with Dr. Elisa Mercadelli’s research group in Italy.
My third topic is not currently researched inCzechia, so I devoted myself to it in the US. It also involves KNN, but not in the form of classic ceramics, but rather in the form of thin films. I additionally focused on issues of aging and degradation there.
What are metamaterials?
Generally speaking, they are materials whose properties are mainly determined by their microstructure instead by their composition. Originally, the term “metamaterials” was principally applied to optical metamaterials, i.e. materials with specific periodic microstructures that lead to relatively exotic properties, such as a negative refractive index. However, the meaning of the term has grown over time. Metamaterials include different types of materials, including ceramics.
In our research group at the Department of Glass and Ceramics, there is a long tradition of research into the connection between a microstructure and the properties of ceramic materials, so this topic fits perfectly into our discipline. Unfortunately, several times when I told someone I was doing a doctorate in ceramics, they imagined plates or sinks and asked me why I was doing a doctorate in this.
So why are you doing a PhD in ceramics?
Even in the field of traditional ceramics, there are still a large number of interesting research topics, so people often just don’t realize what ceramics are, so ceramics might not seem very attractive to them.
If I stick to what we work with, I would mention transparent ceramics, which are used, for example, in lasers or for bulletproof windows or the tips of infrared guided missiles. KNN, which I discussed above, is another example of a piezoelectric material. These kinds of materials are capable of converting between electrical and mechanical energy. In practice, this means that when we apply mechanical stress to such a material, we are able to detect an electric charge, and conversely, if we apply an electric stress to a material, we can slightly deform it on a very small scale.
I imagine a plethora of applications here.
There are indeed many applications. One of them is the ultrasound machine you encounter at the doctor’s office. Ultrasonic waves must be created in an ultrasonic probe by “oscillating” a piezoelectric material with electric voltage. The reflected ultrasonic waves must be scanned again, and an piezoelectric element is typically used for this. For example, sonars or sensors that we use in cars for parking work on a similar principle.
Piezoelectric thin films can be used, for example, in so-called microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), which are microscopic devices that combine electrical and moving elements. One illustrative application is inkjet printers, where MEMS controls how much ink is put on paper, with high-quality printing requiring very high accuracy, speed all in a small component. There are also applications such as energy harvesters, which are able to collect small amounts of electrical energy from vibrations, and many others.
The disadvantage of most materials used today are compounds containing lead. This is problematic, not only in terms of production, but also in terms of waste management. KNN, on the other hand, is non-toxic and even biocompatible. However, reproducibility during preparation is challenging because of substandard properties and because of degradation. In my experience, the behaviour of this material has surprised everyone with whom I have worked on it so far. That makes it another challenge.
Now ceramics sounds much more attractive.
Thank you. Hopefully this will help make studying ceramics more popular with students (laughter). We have several open positions for Bachelor and Master theses on the topic of KNN, so if any of you students out there are interested, regardless of how far along you are in your studies, I’d be happy to take them onboard.
You are known to doctoral students primarily thanks to the Doctoral Student Survival Guide. Can you tell us about it?
The Doctoral Student Survival Guide was created by doctoral candidates in around 2017 as a grassroots initiative to build up a web portal for finding all important information regarding one’s doctoral studies, not only in the form of decrees and guidelines. I only got into the project a few years after it was created, in 2020. Over time, informational meetings for interested parties and new doctoral students started happening. The torch was later passed on from the UCT Prague intranet to the phd.vscht.cz website. A full-fledged version in English was created, and starting this year, we have been working together with the Research and Technology Transfer Office, where we established a very pleasant cooperation with Mili Losmanová, who is in charge of PhD support. What is unique about this project is that it is still being principally maintained and refined by doctoral students, i.e. members of the community for which it was created. I value their efforts very much, and although I’m still associated with the project, my colleagues do a far greater amount of work on it these days. I would like to highlight my colleague Jakub Staś’ work, since he is currently redesigning our website.
What’s next for you after experiencing Italy and the US? Will you be able to constrain yourself only to Czechia?
Now I have to finish my doctorate and I hope I will be able to submit dissertation by the end of this year. I would then like to stay in academia, although I am a little less convinced about it after the US experience. I always thought academia was the exact match for me, but after this experience, I opened myself up to the idea that there might be other paths. Of course, it also depends on the opportunities. I have no plans to move to another country right now, because (among other things) one of the the Fulbright-Masaryk scholarship conditions is that you have to live in Czechia for two years after getting back home. But that doesn’t bother me at all, because it’s time to be home again, and I’d like to use what I learned abroad here.
Later down the road, I’d like to continue the international collaborations I’ve started, such as with the Italian research group I visited in the spring of 2022, or to establish new collaborations with a colleague from the Young Ceramists Network. I don’t rule out another stay abroad in the more distant future, but I can’t imagine living outside Czechia indefinitely.
The prestigious Fulbright Program sponsored by U.S. and Czech governments provides U.S. and Czech citizens with the opportunity to study, teach, or conduct research in the partner country. The Fulbright Program is open to all fields be it Liberal Arts or Hard Sciences (except for MBA, LLM and Clinical Medicine).
Read more at www.fulbright.cz