Ana I. Fernández «We need more female reference figures; Marie Curie is quite a worn-out example by now»

In a men’s world such as the new materials industry, Ana Inés Fernández stands out as a member of DIOPMA, the Centre for Design and Optimization of Material Processes at the Faculty of Chemistry. This Research Group of the University of Barcelona has been working for 25 years in the search for new materials and to give a second life to disused materials.

What happens with women in the field of science and technology?

There is much to do for women in this world; there are very few girls in the faculties of science and technology. I could not say at what stage along the learning process we lose them, but I think that part of the blame falls on the fact that it seems that women have not done anything in this field, and this is not true. Lisa Meitner and Maria Telkes do not appear in any class or film, but the world would not be what it is without them. We only know Marie Curie, and hers is already a worn-out example. There are many more women who have made life better, but we do not know their names, they are not mentioned as examples. If girls were shown these reference figures from early on, perhaps they would want to be astronauts, physicists, engineers…

Is DIOPMA synonymous with circular economy?

When we started 25 years ago, nobody said ‘circular economy’, but yes, we use wastes and transform them into byproducts to find them another application. We now participate in a European project, Rewastee, that uses a fine powder generated by the steel industry to develop a dense coating with thermoregulatory and soundproofing properties. Its competitive advantage is this thermoregulatory function, able to absorb and use the heat that comes from outside.

How should future materials be?

We must think about many factors. A material can be wonderful, but we must take into account whether it is an abundant resource, if it’s easy to obtain, if it’s toxic … and we also have to think about what will happen with it afterwards, and how to recycle it.

Is the idea to eventually recycle it all?

I think that’s the way to go, because the earth is finite and the amount of materials that we can produce is limited. Most of the metal in Spain comes from waste, we have that under control, but the same cannot be said about plastic or petroleum polymers. To this end, in addition to developing new materials, we have much to think about how best to use what we already have and develop new recycling processes.

 How does DIOPMA help companies?

There are some companies that come to us at a very critical moment in search of a solution, which usually has to be very fast and have great impact. Then we have companies we have worked with for a long time, helping them develop their innovation plan. Behind it there is the planning of the project and deciding what can be done in the laboratory. On more than one occasion, we have managed to implement significant changes in the production processes of companies.

Would you encourage companies to invest in R & D?

Companies must take risks, but in the positive sense of the word. Conducting research and innovating is not losing money, this should be their philosophy. Those who are convinced that this is a long-term investment obtain good results. Companies that need a short-term solution normally do not succeed. We don’t perform miracles. Research takes time, it is not immediate.

What do you think about the current status of research in Catalonia?

Clearly, research needs money, that is our misfortune. In recent years, funding dropped, but I still believe that the response of the University of Barcelona has been pretty good, because we maintained a reasonable research level. The point is that financing funds in Catalonia are incredibly small for the size of the region. If the state sees research as an expense, it’s doing what we tell companies not to do. Research should be an investment. We may not be able to explain why they should invest in us, and as researchers we have some responsibility in this.

More about Inés Fernández

A historical figure that  makes you shudder

I wouldn’t know who to choose between Hitler and Stalin

The best invention in history

In my field, synthetic polymers. They have helped 7,000 million people to wear clothes; without this invention half of humanity would go around naked.

The invention you are most afraid of

It is not so much the invention as the use we make of it; genetic manipulation worries me because there is a major ethical issue behind it.

The FBG is…

… a key player for us, both for management and administrative issues and for knowledge transfer actions. It is a great help without which we could not do half the work we do.

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