"It's like a really good roller coaster ride!"

Interview with the Group Leader Dr. Nella Vargas-Barbosa
Interview with Nella Vargas-Barbosa
© MEET/Heinemann

Her fascination for electrochemistry was awakened as early as the ninth grade, a fascination that continues to this day: As the mother of a three-year-old daughter, Puerto Rican-born Nella Vargas-Barbosa tells in an interview what motivated her to pursue a career in science, how she manages to combine work and family life, and what research in chemistry has in common with a rollercoaster ride.

Chemistry is a diverse field of research. What made you decide to pursue a career in this scientific discipline?

Nella Vargas-Barbosa: I had the opportunity to participate in a summer camp at the University of Puerto Rico in the ninth grade and to conduct electrochemical experiments. The nanotechnology camp was sponsored by NASA and the US National Science Foundation (NSF). There I came into contact with chemistry for the first time and was allowed to work directly on an atomic force microscope and on fuel cells. I really enjoyed that very much! We were supervised by several female doctoral students and it was immediately clear to me: I want to do something like that later!

What are you currently researching with your junior research group at Helmholtz Institute Münster (HI MS)?

Nella Vargas-Barbosa: As an electrochemist, I study interfaces in battery cells, especially in solid state batteries, and the charge transfer taking place there. Interfaces play an important role in energy storage and offer exciting approaches to further improve battery cells.

I am currently setting up the junior research group at HI MS, and the first doctoral student, Henry Woolley from Great Britain, will start in December via the international graduate school BACCARA. Another student from Italy will join in spring 2021. Further Bachelor and Master students will follow. HI MS offers us an environment with a fascinating mix of people with diverse research perspectives: theoretical and experimental approaches are combined to answer complex questions.

What do you particularly like about your work?

Nella Vargas-Barbosa: Understanding the connections and being able to answer questions, especially when things get challenging. Research in chemistry is like a really good rollercoaster ride for me: you have ups and downs, excitement and relief, fun and effort - it's all there!

As the mother of a small daughter: What do you think is important to successfully combine family and a career in science?

Nella Vargas-Barbosa: First of all, structural support: Sufficient care facilities, even for the youngest children, ideally close to the workplace. Just as important is the consideration of very practical things like changing tables or breastfeeding facilities in office buildings. At least as important is a good own care network by the partner, family and friends. A digital calendar has proved very useful for us, with which we coordinate our work and the care of our daughter.

What advice do you give young scientists who decide to pursue a career in chemistry?

Nella Vargas-Barbosa: Be resilient, i.e. resistant, when pursuing goals and at the same time always allow yourself enough time for reflection. If an experiment fails with me, I stop, go home and take a break. That way I can reflect and then start again, that has always helped so far!

Dr. Nella Vargas-Barbosa and her junior research group at HI MS are investigating interface phenomena in solid state batteries.