Always smiling and positive, Azin Shahsavar works in the Molecular Nanostructures on Surfaces research group led by Jan Čechal, Ph.D. She was able to fulfil her professional dream thanks to CEITEC BUT in 2019. Initially, she did not know anyone, but now she has a fiancé and many friends here and already plans to stay. She says she would not have had such job opportunities in her home country. Apart from her research activities, she is also studying the Czech language.
Can you describe what you do?
I am a theoretician and work in a group with experimenters who prepare supramolecular nanostructures on metal and graphene surfaces. They study the self-assembly process and the properties of the resulting layers using various instruments in the laboratory. Whereas I am in my office on my laptop doing calculations – simulating the structures my colleagues are working with. Basically, it's a parallel activity where I model the observed structures using methods based on density functional theory (DFT for short, it is a quantum mechanical modelling method used in chemistry and physics to calculate the electronic structure of atoms, molecules, and solids) and compare the results with the experimenters. Experimental work can have limits – some questions remain open, and thanks to my calculations, we have answers that help to understand the studied systems.
The name of the research group you are part of is Molecular Nanostructures on Surfaces. How would you describe the research in layman’s terms?
We work with different types of interfaces between organic and inorganic materials. These materials are the building blocks of target applications. We are doing basic research – we are developing new materials, learning how to work with them, and learning how they could be more effective for applications. Because when you are working with a material, first of all, you should know how the material behaves, what its properties are, and what it can be used for. This is called a baseline study. So, with our work, you will learn all the information about materials that can be used in industry, in fields like spintronics, etc.
What are you working on now?
In my current project, I am working on metal-organic layers on graphene. In this structure, there are individual transition metal atoms that have magnetic properties. I collaborate on this project with one of my fellow experimenters, with whom I always meet and compare our results. We take the experimental part as fact; it's something that he has observed. He asks me: “why does this happens?” and I seek the answer. The best thing for me is when our results agree because I know my calculations are correct, accurate, and, therefore, trustworthy. This allows me to go one step further in my calculations where experimenters would not have gone, and so I have something new to tell. This was actually the reason why I wanted to work in Brno at CEITEC. I needed to verify my theoretical results in practice. This is where my dream came true.
Can you describe your scientific journey before you came here?
I come from Iran, where I also went to school. I studied chemistry in undergraduate school, then graduated with a degree in physical chemistry. My Ph.D. is in quantum physical chemistry. All in theoretical terms, however. I've done simulations, DFT calculations that allow you to predict the behaviour of materials. During my Ph.D. I found that I really loved my work; however, I felt that it was not complete, that something was missing. Because I was only working in a group of theoreticians. I lacked feedback on whether what I was doing was actually working. When I was deciding where to go next, I knew I wanted to work with experimenters in Europe, it was a challenge. At the same time, I have to admit that I wouldn't have had that kind of job opportunity at home.
Why did you choose Brno?
I was thinking between Germany and the Czech Republic. I have two uncles in Germany, so it would have been easier for me. However, and this may sound like a cliché, I felt I had to go to Brno. I didn't know why at the time, but now I do. I'm happy here. I found my dream job and my second family.
But let's go back in time. How challenging was it for you, as a foreigner, to apply for a job at CEITEC? Did you know where to look for information?
In general, it is difficult to apply for a job when you are a theoretical scientist and you want to work with a group of experimenters who have a completely different approach. It doesn't seem credible. Fortunately, I came across the work of Associate Professor Jan Čechal, whom I contacted. He got back to me soon enough and we had an online interview. He accepted me, and if I needed anything, he or someone from CEITEC helped me right away, took care of the necessary documents. They were just great and supportive, trying to make it as easy as possible for me. So, I didn't have any problems. And when I arrived in Brno, they put me up right away.
You arrived in 2018. Have you encountered any barriers in that time? Language, perhaps?
Professionally, I haven't had any problems. There are a lot of international scientists working at CEITEC, so there are a lot of foreigners here. I don't feel lonely here. I feel the language barrier, but I try to adapt. You have one of the most challenging languages (laughs), but I'm trying. I'm taking a course once a week. I believe I'm going to learn it. If you are interested and you want to, then you can do it. And I have personal reasons for it.
Do you have a favourite Czech word?
Yes, I do – "funguje" (works). I like "funguje" and I use it quite often. It sounds cute and it has a positive energy. Because when something "funguje", it's good (laughs). You don't use it in negative situations. I love Czech language because it allows you to say everything in a softer way. For example: "trochu, trošku, trošinku". Do you understand me? You just soften it and it's cute. I really like it. Like, I use "kafíčko, čajíček" a lot, too. When I hear it, I know the person saying it has a nice intonation. So, you have different ways of saying things.
While we’re on nice topics, what are the advantages of working in the Czech Republic for you?
The biggest one is that I got a job offer that was my dream job. My supervisor, Honza Čechal, trusted me even though I didn‘t have that much experience and he had never met me. He gave me an opportunity and I really appreciate that. I have been part of his research group ever since. I also see another advantage in being able to plan for the future. I feel independent. That's unfortunately something I didn't have in my country. I mean, I can save money here and I know what I'm going to use it for. Inflation is very high in Iran; and economically speaking there are problems there. But in general, it's great to live abroad and experience a different culture and different things.
What's the biggest difference you've noticed? What surprised you?
That's kind of funny. The thing that surprised me the most was that the younger generation wants and has children here. I see a lot of young people here with strollers, that was definitely not the case in Tehran. There, they don't have children until they're thirty-five. For example, my sister has been married for ten years, she is 38 years old and she doesn't want children. And there were a lot of people like that around me. I had the same expectations here, but it's the opposite. I see a lot of "miminko" here (laughs).
And how would you describe Brno? Do you like it?
I love Brno! I believe I have found my second home here and I plan to stay here. Partly because of my great job and relationship, but in general I like smaller cities because you don't have to deal with crowds of people and traffic jams. I've also been to Prague for a month, but it reminds me of Tehran. It's crowded with people, it's not for me. I prefer the quiet. And Brno is said to be a big village (laughs) and of course I'm familiar with all the jokes about Brno (laughs).
It's refreshing to hear someone praise the traffic in Brno.
It depends on the perspective, what you're comparing. If anything, here I stand in a traffic jam for ten, twenty minutes at most. In Tehran? That would be an hour or two or even more, every day! And you're right, I know a lot of people complain too. But it's just the second biggest city in the Czech Republic, so it's understandable that there will be cars and more traffic.
Have you got used to the Czech culture?
I have only a positive impression of the locals. The Czechs are friendly and willing to help. In general, when I smile at someone, they smile back. And it's important for me because it makes me feel welcome. As a foreigner I am a guest and I have to respect and understand your rules and I don‘t expect to change any of them – this is your home here and you are great hosts. I like the Czech culture and the strong family ties. That's what we have in Tehran.