Interview with Athina Anastasaki

Meet Athina Anastasaki, the recipient of the 2022 EuChemS Lecture Award
Interview conducted by: Marton Kottmayer,

Congratulations on being the 2022 EuChemS Lecture awardee! What does this recognition mean to you?

I feel very happy for this award, as a chemistry award rarely goes to polymer chemists. It means that the work we do in our group is recognized and this is motivating to all.

Could you talk a bit about the path that led you here? What drew you to this specific area of chemistry?

I chose polymer chemistry as I was deeply influenced by my Professor during my Bachelor studies. Professor Nikos Hadjichristidis is an internationally renowned polymer chemist and was a true inspiration at the start of my career. It has always been about the people as I learned to appreciate and love science and polymers through them! First, my teachers, then my supervisors and now my students, collaborators, and colleagues; they all play a role in following the path of polymers.

Your key topics are fundamental polymer synthesis, self-assembly, and chemical recycling – can you talk about them in a bit more detail?

Our group focuses mainly on the area of controlled radical polymerization. We are looking at developing innovative methodologies to control macromolecular characteristics of polymers, including dispersity and end-group fidelity. By ensuring high livingness, two further opportunities are unlocked. The first one is the possibility to synthesize well-defined block copolymers, which upon self-assembly result in polymeric nanoparticles of various shapes such as worms, vesicles, and small spheres. The second possibility is to utilize the high end-group fidelity to reverse controlled radical polymerization approaches and regenerate the starting monomer, which could then be used to synthesize a new material.

Can you share some insights about the practical applications of your work?

We seek to develop user-friendly and inexpensive radical polymerization methodologies that could find applicability in industry. For example, we employ acids to replace traditional radical initiators in both reversible addition–fragmentation chain transfer (RAFT) and traditional free radical polymerization. Our group is also interested in transferring our recently developed depolymerization methodologies from polymers synthesized by controlled radical polymerization to polymers synthesized by free radical polymerization; the latter could potentially lead to more practical applications.

What environmental and sustainability considerations are involved in your research?

We strive to develop sustainable polymer chemistry and chemical recycling approaches. On one hand, we polymerize renewable monomers via environmentally friendly catalysts yielding greener polymerization approaches. On the other hand, we target the depolymerization of vinyl polymers with the aim of utilizing the retrieved materials to reshape either the original plastic or an entirely new material.

Can you talk about the challenges you faced, and achievements you are proud of?

A recurring challenge in academia is that one has to continuously move to a new country and university to be successful. I first did my PhD in the UK, my post-doctoral appointment was in Australia followed by a second one in the US and I am now an Assistant Professor in Switzerland. There is a high chance I will have to move again and although I am always happy acquiring new skills and meeting new people, I am less happy about this continuous move; a part of my soul is always left behind.

My most significant achievement is the mentoring of Master students, PhD students, and post-doctoral researchers. Depending on their personal and professional needs, I am happy to act not only as a supervisor and a colleague but also as a friend or even an academic parent when necessary. They are my academic family. There is nothing more fulfilling than observing them achieving their goals; some stay in academia and some leave, and I am equally proud of all of them.

You have received a number of honours in your early career, such as the IUPAC Young Scientist Award and the Polymers Young Investigator Award. Is there any advice you can give to young scientists?

I understand how awards can, in many occasions, support our career but no award should be the focus of a scientist. Most of the time, the award winner is indeed perceived as a “good” scientist but not getting an award does not reflect someone’s accomplishments and scientific competencies. Thus, my advice would deemphasize the importance of awards, as I would suggest that we focus on the quality of our research and on being the best we can be. Every now and then I ask myself “Am I happy with my research?”, “Am I supporting my group members?”. If the answer is positive, then I feel honoured and blessed.

As this interview is nearing the end, we would be happy to hear your final thoughts or messages to our readers.

There are three things that make me happy on a daily basis; my partner/family, chemistry, and food. When one of them does not go well temporarily, I seek consolation in the other two. It is very important to have a supportive circle around you, and people are always more important than work, including chemistry.

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