What university to choose? We asked well-known Slovak scientists

If you were a high school student and you had to choose a university, what that would be? We asked well-known Slovak and Czech scientists why it is worth studying science and technology.

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Slovenská astrobiologička Michaela Musilová. Foto: M. Musilová

Why study science and technology? The answer to this question is not easy. If you were a high school student and should choose a university, what would be your answer? Would you go?

If your answer is “No“, then you do not even stand out of the Slovak average. While up to one third of primary and secondary school students are interested in technical sciences (engineering, electrical engineering, construction), only close to 14 % want to study technical sciences.

Interest in study of natural sciences

Similarly it is also with the natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology): they are interesting for almost one quarter of the young population, but only every eighth student would choose them as their field of study at the university. This is based on an empirical survey conducted by the Centre of Scientific and Technical Information of the SR (CVTI SR) on a sample of 1,998 respondents from 2015 (last data available).

When we also look at the groups of study fields, where they have the most applicants in Slovakia, then according to the CVTI statistics in 2017 prevailed the economic sciences, followed by non-medical health and educational sciences. Only in the seventh place the first “technologies“ come in, that is information technology and communication technology. Mechanical engineering is on the ninth place and electrical engineering on the tenth.

There are many popularizing activities in Slovakia that are to encourage the interest of young people in science and technology. For example, Slovenske elektrarne support the Week of Science and Technology (and the Science Festival), it actively participates in the European Researchers Night or recognize the authors of diploma thesis. One of the popularizing activities – but also popular among the young people – are Science Talks.

We managed to contact scientists, who already talked at these Science Talks. They are young, smart and talk about science in an interesting way.

Na Slovensku prebieha veľa popularizačných aktivít, ktoré majú podnietiť záujem mladých o vedu a techniku. Napríklad jeden z najväčších zamestnávateľov vysokoškolákov na Slovensku – Slovenské elektrárne – si robí zálusk na absolventov elektrotechniky či jadrového inžinierstva. Firma preto podporuje niekoľko stredoškolských podujatí, ktoré majú mladých priviesť k štúdiu vedy a techniky aj na vysokej škole. Ide o populárne podujatia Týždeň vedy a techniky (a Festival vedy), Európsku noc výskumníkov alebo Ceny Aurela Stodolu za najlepšie bakalárske, diplomové či dizertačné práce. Ak hádate, že tam kapitánsku rigorózku nenájdete, tak hádate správne 🙂

Jednou z popularizačných aktivít sú Science Talks, seriál prednášok a diskusných fór s medzinárodnými vedeckými kapacitami, ktorý cestuje po slovenských vysokých školách. Podarilo sa nám osloviť vedcov, ktorí na nich už vystúpili. Sú mladí, šikovní a o vede hovoria radi a zaujímavo.

“I was very fascinated by nature and I wanted to know how everything worked, whether it be how the mountains are formed, up to how life came into space. Curiosity was my first motivation.“

Michaela Musilová
astrobiologist

Michaela Musilová
READ MORE: Teachers did not support me

Michaela Musilova is devoted to astrobiology – the search for life in space – and particularly interested in extremophiles, which are organisms that can survive in extremely harsh conditions.

In 2014, she completed a mission simulation on Mars, in Utah, USA, and this year she is taking part in a similar research project – this time as its commander – in Hawaii. “I was very fascinated by nature and I wanted to know how everything worked, whether it be how the mountains are formed, up to how life came into space. Curiosity was my first motivation.“

Two years ago, Microsoft published results of survey conducted among schoolgirls from eleven countries including Slovakia. More than 45 % of girls from primary schools in Slovakia can imagine having a career in science and technology. However, they lack support of their closest – especially from parents and teachers. Unfortunately, Michaela had a similar experience. “Teachers did not support me. I even felt that they did not believe that I could do it , because I was not a grinder.“ Although at the high school she was more of a rebellious girl listening to the metal, later she – out of spite – strived for excellent marks on graduation – which she managed.

According to Michaela, science aims to increase knowledge in each field and contribute to education of the society and to improving conditions that we live in. “Most scientists do their work because it is for common good and not for a personal welfare.“

Michal Zajaček

Inner motivation and endurance are important.

Michal Zajaček
postdoctoral researcher, Bonn

READ MORE: An Adventure Without End

His story is a living proof of how much our childhood affects our direction in life.

With Michal Zajaček it started “innocently“ – with interest in what is happening in the sky. Later, under a Christmas tree he found a small astronomical telescope. This started his first childhood “discoveries“: the details of craters and mountains on the Moon, Jupiter´s moons, binary stars. This was complemented with “romance“: the silence and darkness of the night landscape.

After successfully defending his dissertation thesis in October 2017, he continues in the Max Planck Society in Bonn as postdoctoral staff member. He examines the fast and narrow spurts of matter from the galaxy´s nuclei, the so called jets.

According to a Slovak scientist working in Germany, both types of research are important for the society – basic and applied.

Basic research is the engine of progress, applied research brings specific results for “normal“ life. As an example, Zajaček states the gradual discovery of elementary particles of matter, electrons, protons and neutrons during the 19th and 20th centuries. “The first years after the discovery, there was hardly any direct benefit for the society, but today we can hardly imagine medicine without diagnostic and therapeutic benefits, such as computer tomography, magnetic resonance or proton therapy, which would not otherwise develop without knowledge of the structure of matter. So every discovery is in its own way beneficial and good for society, or has a potential of bringing something good.“

Take a rest because a tired brain can’t be creative.

Kateřina Falk
physicist

Kateřina Falk
READ MORE: Laser Show and Nuclear Fusion

She comes from Zlin, graduated from high school in Scotland, physics at Imperial College London. After that she achieved a doctorate degree at Oxford University, where she also taught. Then she accepted an offer from Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US. We can add to her CV work in Prague, where she helped develop experiments for the world´s most powerful laser.

The story of Kateřina Falk may sound too perfect and seamless, but in reality it is not. Katka is a dyslexic, she has overcome two stages of burnout during her doctorate study and she had to work hard for it. In addition, she had to combine her career with motherhood.

And in today´s hilarious time she gives unusual advice: indulge yourself with rest, because tired brain cannot be creative. At the moment she works as a young leader for research at the Helmholtz-Zentrum in Dresden and is also interested in the opportunity to finally putting into operation a fusion power plant.

The big challenges that the scientists face, according to Kateřina, are right now in the energy sector, but also in sustainable development or a lack of clean water for agriculture. She is also worried about climate change and unhealthy economic growth. “Science often warns about these problems. But the mankind does not listen to scientists very much.“

All “big‘ discoveries stand on the ant hill of “small‘ pieces of knowledge.

Ondrej Bajza
entrepreneur with wood products

READ MORE: Business Idea: Pail Closets

Ondrej Bajza is an innovator with his body and soul. He graduated from Secondary Technical School – construction- in Žilina and wooden constructions at Faculty of Wood Technology, Technical University in Zvolen. Young people are advised to start working or doing business already during school.

Ondrej discovered a niche on the market: pail closets. “No matter how much this area may give you a smile, at that time no one has specialized in this field, and certainly not as an E-shop.“

Although Ondrej´s case was not about lasers or nuclear fusion, but as a doctoral student he devoted himself to quality of construction timber, he could write a better dissertation thesis and produce higher quality products. Thanks to good theory, but also thanks to practical experience he has gained in his own business.

Also Ondrej agrees with that science should help solve also major global problems. “Research is a laborious work, often only appreciated by a very narrow circle of dedicated people. After all, all “big‘ discoveries stand on the ant hill of “small‘ pieces of knowledge.“

Science will not work without people nor will people without science.

Igor Žovtík
snail robot inventor

READ MORE: Did Igor make a mistake?

 “Sometimes it is difficult to motivate young people, but if we see potential in someone, it is our social duty to develop it”, says Igor Žovtik, a native of Eastern Slovakia, who took part in the international I-SWEEP competition with his snail robot.

“Snail was a very special invention. Its task was to overcome difficult ascents and measure values as needed. It carried more control units, which allowed him to make independent measurements and at the same time move in a rough terrain. It was able to learn and analyse its surroundings on the way. Also thanks to this, no terrain was impossible for it,“ says Igor, who was already a science fiction fan as a small boy, while robots were not missing, in any movie, of course. Robotics became his childhood dream.

During University studies he also became more interested in energy, especially alternative sources of energy.

Igor went to study university to fulfil his childhood dream, but his motivation was also something else – to do something extra. Today he no longer works as a scientist.

“I gave up at a certain age. Maybe I made a mistake and will regret it one day, but I feel OK right now. Now I am interested more in social science. In my opinion, technology is much wiser than man, and that´s a mistake. Of course, I am not going to do a promotion now and persuade people to stop devoting themselves to technology. But I feel more useful to the society in humanities,“ Igor says.

His message is clear: science can help us in a number of questions about how the world works, we just have to use it properly. He would like to see the humanities applied in the society as well that relate to the society as such. “Science will not work without people nor will people without science.“

Why should young people study science or technology? Igor answers: “It is imperative to move and discover the many solutions for those important questions. It is necessary to look for alternatives that are simpler. But not to be lazy, but to be able to make big things with minimal effort. But there will never be enough scientists in the world to say that we no longer need them.“

Are you interested in nuclear energy? Study it!

Don´t worry! We will teach you everything. Just fill the application!

If you are interested in studying nuclear and physical engineering at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Informatics of the Slovak University of Technology in Bratislava,  it is necessary to apply.

Author Matúš Demko gives his thanks not only to interviewed scientists but also to Mr Juraj Kopřiva, editor of Nuclear.sk, a leading Slovak online publication on nuclear power and science.

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