Physicist Dr. Anja Waske has a doctorate in Engineering and has led the Division of Radiological Methods at BAM since May 2018. Her interest in scientific work really sparked after her doctorate - while being in a project position, she experienced and learned to value collaborating in a large scientific. During this time she also discovered her leadership qualities, and today she is able to look back at her own career and declare, “Women, believe in yourselves!”
What exactly does the Division of Radiological Methods at BAM do?
To put it simply, we work on the 3D imaging of materials. I have a sample or component that I want to use to make a digital, three-dimensional image. I can study this “digital twin” of the real-life object virtually, and find any defects for example. But I can also use the data set to simulate heat distribution in a sample, for instance. And above all, I can keep studying the sample afterward because the X-ray scan is non-destructive. That is the appeal of this imaging method.
You wrote a diploma thesis in physics at the Leibniz Institute for Solid State and Materials Research, IFW, in Dresden, about low-temperature physics. How did you become a specialist in X-ray tomography?
After earning my Diploma, I transferred to engineering in the Faculty of Mechanical Science and Engineering at TU Dresden. Switching to another discipline was incredibly educational. While physicists uncover problems and describe them in detail, engineers quickly come up with ideas to find a solution. I was very impressed by that! In writing my doctoral thesis, I learned about the method of X-ray tomography. Our working group studied a model filter to determine where the smallest solid particles in a solution are separated in the filter. 3D imaging gives you the almost magical ability to look at an object from the inside without destroying it. That is still a key moment for me even today.
Did you plan on having a scientific career?
After finishing my dissertation I needed a job in Dresden, so I applied for a project position, once again at the IFW. After that I wanted to look for a job in the industry. But then something great happened – I was suddenly catapulted into a very dynamic scientific community, and for the first time I was working right at the forefront of a topic: magnetocaloric materials. In the project, I focused on magnetic cooling, and ultimately how a refrigerator could fully function without climate damaging gases, using just a magnetic solid.
What came next for you in the scientific field, once you became enthusiastic about it?
I was able to access a huge network of other scientists and researchers; at the same time, the ferroic cooling DFG priority programme came into being – I rounded up three colleagues from all over Germany, and we successfully submitted a joint application to the DFG. In the new project, I led a group of doctoral and postdoc students –a kind of collaboration I had never experienced that as a doctoral student. I found the discussions with these young people incredibly inspiring, and that’s still true today. That was when I realised: I can do this, and I enjoy it. After the DFG priority programme, it was clear to me that I wanted to stay in the science field.
What do you find exciting about your new work at BAM, and at a departmental research institute in general?
As soon as you walk through the doors, you realise that BAM is looking at the really big questions that drive our society – I think that’s very good. Scientists are always a little bit enamoured with their own research, as I know from personal experience. But giving the work a context, asking yourself whom it will serve, gives your own research a great sense of purpose. That perspective is very strong at BAM. It is reflected very clearly in the topic areas, such as ‘energy’ and ’infrastructure’: what new materials do we need? Who will benefit from the sensor I am developing? What do we need to do to make sure materials science and natural science innovations are truly accepted by society?
Where would you like to go with your division next?
My division has a wealth of competences in non-destructive testing, and they have worked on many industrial assignments already, for instance when companies want to know why their components cannot withstand certain stresses. I, on the other hand, come from a strong research-oriented institute and my focus is on using new materials. That makes for a very interesting combination, when we look at how a small sensor behaves within a large component, for example. We could answer that as a whole.
What is the difference between leading a BAM division and leading a research group at the Leibniz Institute for Solid State and Materials Research?
At the IFW I mentored doctoral students and postdocs, and I really enjoyed watching their development. Here at BAM on the other hand, I can draw on a wealth of experience from my colleagues, which is great! But because we want the division to have a more research-oriented focus, we will also be hiring more doctoral students in the future.
Women make up about 15% of physics, and the number is even lower for engineering. What advice do you have for young female scientists in these areas?
You need thick skin and self-confidence in order to assert yourself, but it’s worth it. Many of the other women scientists and women in leadership positions whom I have met over the years are great people, and talking to them is hugely rewarding.
Ultimately, you can only assume responsibility if you are at the forefront. And what responsibility could be greater than helping to shape the world of tomorrow? Women, believe in yourselves! Your talents and ideas are needed.