Interviews // 11.02.2021 // DECTRIS

“Science is a gateway to adventures in many careers”

A 15-minute read

Dr. Dubravka Šišak Jung’s career has alternated between research and business. In her current role as a Scientific Liaison at DECTRIS, she works with academic researchers and industry professionals to help them realize their scientific and business goals. With a background in X-ray crystallography, she is also a board member of the Swiss Crystallographic Society and a lecturer at many international schools and workshops. To celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we sat down with Dubravka to learn about the role of science in her career. 

Dubravka Šišak Jung, Scientific Liaison at DECTRIS.

DECTRIS: You have a Ph.D. in the field of Materials Science. Why did you choose this specific field?

Dubravka Šišak Jung, Scientific Liaison at DECTRIS: Why do solid things break? Why don’t the broken pieces get back together? Is there a smallest piece of matter that cannot be broken? Living in Croatia, a country whose research history includes the Nobel laureates Prelog and Ružička, I knew that I was going to look for answers at the Faculty of Science and Mathematics in Zagreb. At the Chemistry Department, one of the professors introduced me to crystallography by comparing it to a light switch. Thanks to a light switch, you stop tapping in the dark and really see things for what they are: the way atoms and molecules are arranged in space. I immediately knew that I wanted to dig deeper into crystallographic research and was getting ready for a career in academia. However, I was in for a big surprise! One of the strongest pushes to do my Ph.D. at the ETH Zurich was given to me not by academia, but by industry.

How did your career develop?

Dubravka: After I finished my studies in Chemistry, I worked at the University of Zagreb as a teaching assistant and looked for a job in crystallography. The opportunity presented itself through a pharmaceutical company, PLIVA. “Only the sky is the limit”, my supervisor, Dr. Ernest Meštrović, used to say. He was right! Supported by an amazing team, I dove into research and development of drugs, as well as their production, quality control, and intellectual property management. However, Ernest also taught me something else: as a person who held a chair position at the University and a director position at PLIVA, he inspired me to remove barriers between academia and industry. I therefore made it my personal goal to deepen and broaden my knowledge and span it across research, development, business, and communications. One step in this direction was my Ph.D. at the ETH Zurich. 

At the ETH, I was developing methodologies for structure determination from Powder X-Ray Diffraction (PXRD) data. This required frequent visits to synchrotron sources. I remember the first time I saw the big, multimodular MYTHEN detector at the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI)’s Swiss Light Source (SLS). It was love at first sight! Fast, convenient, reliable, it allowed me to collect high-quality data sets within seconds. 

Then, at conferences, I met some of the experts who work at DECTRIS. Their scientific expertise and eagerness to interact with researchers were admirable. Even though I was not a technology buff then, these people inspired me to think about X-ray instrumentation, business, and building a startup into a company. In 2013, I joined DECTRIS with the aim to develop PXRD markets. And I am still here, but with a different goal.

A 360° look at science

What is your current role, and how does it align with your goal to span science, business, and communications? 

Dubravka: During my eight years at DECTRIS, I have expanded my scientific and commercial knowledge. I have finsihed a study program in marketing and communications, and apart from PXRD, I cover X-ray spectroscopy, total scattering, and Laue diffraction applications. The best part of my job is looking at these topics from various perspectives: research, development, technology, business, and communications. I help researchers realize their scientific goals, and I engage with industry partners in business development. This may involve something as simple as consulting, or something as complex as an international collaboration. It is incredibly inspiring to see the challenges people face and the flow of ideas to solve them! Another side of my job is advancing the sharing of knowledge by developing and curating communication platforms.

As a Scientific Liaison, you are constantly on the bridge between science and industry. What does this mean to you?

Dubravka: Indeed, it is an exciting interdisciplinary position! One foot is in research, keeping up to date with the needs of various communities, the latest scientific discoveries, and new methods; and the other foot is in industry, trying to tap innovators for business and industrial R&D. Meanwhile, my head is in the middle, translating requirements and solutions back and forth. With our detectors, we provide users with one piece of an equation, and then together we figure out how to maximize its value through a discussion, a piece of advice, or a collaboration. To me, these conversations open up a door to many wonders of the world, for example: setting up a collaborative platform to discuss X-ray absorption in catalysis research, writing an article on COVID-19, doing marketing research in China, or riding a bus down the dusty road to SESAME to see the donated PILATUS in action.

Changing science

How do you think science and its role have been changing in the past decades? 

Dubravka: The official history of science tells a story of specialization: from polymaths to specialists. However, we also see that these specialists are successfully removing many borders between scientific fields. Nowadays, science hardly sees individual disciplines, and it thrives on interdisciplinary collaborations. Borders between industrial and academic research are also becoming thinner. Scientific communication has totally transformed, making science more open and more accessible to a wider audience. Finally, the audience seems to care about the topic. The public is even included in scientific research through various “citizen science” projects!

What does it mean for you to be a woman in STEM?

Dubravka: If we use the classical definition, I could not call myself a typical scientist because my position is different from those of my colleagues who are working in academia. However, we all seem to share some similarities: endless “why?” questions, making and breaking theories, critical thinking, and a creative approach to challenges. These traits are nurtured throughout years of practice, and they are important not only for careers in science, but also for careers in many other fields.

You are also teaching the young generation of scientists at different schools and workshops. What prompts young people to choose this path?

Dubravka: We all know that one teacher or lecture that made a difference in our lives. Teaching at schools and workshops is incredibly important to me! I am very happy that DECTRIS has been supporting my educational initiatives from Day One. I love all of them: teaching and coaching; organizing scientific events, sponsorships, and award programs. This March I will hold a technology lecture on synchrotron science at the European HERCULES School, and in July I will discuss X-ray instrumentation at the European Crystallography School. Young researchers and students are inquisitive; they seem to be driven by the interdisciplinarity of science and its connection to industry. They seem to embrace the fact that science is a gateway to many career opportunities. And it is!

To finish with a classic question: what role models in the world of science do you have?

Dubravka: Sometimes I think that a “scientist” is a state of mind: a person is trained to go to a great extent to understand a topic, make a concept, and then change his or her mind if new evidence arises. In that sense, my role models are mental athletes who go deeply into a problem; who are critical, humble, and do not shy away from hard work. I am happy to have known many of them! If I were to choose only one, I would highlight my Ph.D. supervisor, Dr. Lynne McCusker. Her active search for new problems and her patience to solve them are admirable. With her, I learned how to be excited about my research, yet also critical, and how to question everything without undermining it. Her humanity, kindness, and integrity will always be inspirational for me. 

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