Elena RozhkovaBy Joseph Bernstein • April 5, 2013
Elena Rozhkova is a scientist at Argonne’s Center for Nanoscale Materials in the Nanoscience and Technology division.
What role do you play at Argonne?
I develop my own research program and also work with users because the Center for Nanoscale Materials (CNM) is a user facility. I came to nanotechnology from chemistry. What's unique about the research I'm doing here is that it intensely overlaps different kinds of sciences: materials science, chemistry, physics and biological sciences. I work in the Nanobio Interfaces Group where I focus on three broad efforts. First, we are developing nanobio hybrid materials. We take an inorganic nanomaterial and a soft biological material and combine them in hybrid structures with advanced properties. Second, we adapt principles from biology, such as photosynthesis, biorecognition or biological signaling and communication for action, to build new materials. Third, and quite uniquely, we are taking our hybrid materials and introducing them into complex biological systems like living cells.
What attracted you to work at Argonne?
I basically moved to the Chicago area from Princeton University for family reasons. When I came to CNM almost six years ago, it was a new division, and we entered a brand-new building and facility. I was very happy because everything I needed for my research was available onsite — that’s very important. We have truly unique capabilities in the facility. When CNM was initiated, the division director managed to hire the best people including young researches from groups famous in the vigorously developing field of nanoscience. For me, it was really encouraging because I came with my own expertise from a more traditional chemistry discipline.
What advice would you give to girls and women who want to pursue a career in science?
I graduated from a school that was the first higher education school in natural sciences for women in Russia — the Higher Women’s Courses, established in 1900 — covering chemistry, geology, agriculture and medicine. Traditionally at that school, the vast majority of professors are women. I was lucky to have great role models from my earliest studies. All of my advisors were women, including professors, and my immediate adviser was a Member of the National Academy of Sciences. Then I moved. I did my postdoctoral research at Tohoku University in Japan. For a year, I was the only female researcher in the whole department building. But my boss was a rare example, in that he enthusiastically recruited women researchers and students to his group, believing that if a woman can reach the same position, this woman is stronger than a man. It's great luck to meet the right mentors, the right supervisors. That can make a big difference.
How do you balance doing original research and supporting the CNM user mission?
Ninety percent of our users are collaborators in our research. If you publish an interesting paper, if your own research is appealing, people will come in based on your publication and want to do something similar or want to apply a similar material or a similar principle. And we are happy to cooperate, discuss and help. Basically, it's kind of a continuation or extension of our own research. Our users are medical doctors who are looking for an expert in chemistry or physics, as well as scientists who are interested in interdisciplinary collaboration.
What’s the distinction between working at a national lab versus a university?
It's a big difference, of course. We do not have many students in my group. There are pluses and minuses of that. Personally, I like to work with young people, with students and postdocs, because they ask questions. That makes you think. When you explain things to them, you understand better yourself. It's very important. However, here we focus more on research and professional networking rather than on teaching duties. Another big difference is that safety is taken more seriously here. The level of safety organization at Argonne is much higher than that in academia.
What is the potential for interdisciplinary engagement at the lab?
X-ray microscopy is really a different discipline from what I did before. I started working in that field five years ago and we are now doing great things. We collaborate with the Materials Science and Biosciences Divisions and with the Advanced Photon Source. If you have interest, if you are passionate, you can find many different things to work on at Argonne.
Is travel involved with your job?
I travel out of necessity. This month, for example, I am going to Japan. I got an invitation from the Spring-8 Japanese high-brilliance synchrotron source. In the last few years, I have been able to attend some great meetings in India, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and, of course, within the United States. And from nearly every meeting, I returned with new ideas, collaborators and users. In the U.S., I focus mainly on big meetings like those held by the Materials Research Society (MRS) or American Chemical Society. CNM also organizes meetings and symposia. This year, for example, I serve as a member of an international team, organizing an MRS symposium on artificial photosynthesis. In science, travelling is important for learning and networking.