15 May 2024

Who is Martin Pumera, one of the most cited scientists in the world?

Professor Martin Pumera | Autor: Jakub Rozboud

It is not his dream to be a Nobel laureate, he says he no longer sets goals. He says he is happy and has no regrets, and if an award comes, it will be a pleasant surprise, not the fulfillment of his desires. The highly successful scientist Martin Pumera, who heads the Future Energy and Innovation research group at CEITEC BUT, celebrated his jubilee this January. And so, in a nearly three-hour long but energetic and very open interview, he also takes stock. What is the journey of the most cited chemist working in the Czech Republic? What does he have in common with the fairytale character Elsa from Frozen? And does an exceptionally talented man who has published a remarkable 900 scientific papers in his career even have time for a private life?

Prague, Brno and Ostrava are all proud of your work. How far can we say the “Pumera Group” stretches?

Let's start with the hard stuff. Well done (laughs). I have to explain it a little more broadly. I am, of course, Czech. I have a Czech passport, and I consider myself Czech, but when we talk about the Czech academic system, I am more of a foreigner who speaks Czech. I don't understand it, even though it is expected of me as a professor. And I don't mean that in a bad way. As a student, I didn't understand the system, and right after I got my PhD., I left for America with my wife. Spain, Japan, and Singapore followed, and some 20 years later, we returned to Prague. So I am more familiar with the foreign academic system where this “octopus” style with tentacles everywhere is common in various institutions and labs. My boss in Japan, for example, had five positions in five universities. For me, it’s the fact that I care more about the people I work with than the position I hold.

However, your main work base is in Brno at CEITEC BUT. Despite the fact that you live near Prague. Is it worth the trip down the D1 highway?

It is. If I didn’t like it here, believe me, I wouldn’t be here. I don’t work where I don’t like, and I don’t work with people I don’t like. There’s nothing wrong with that, that’s my mindset. CEITEC is a rather unique institution in the Czech Republic, offering great facilities and, above all, freedom, which is not common. It’s more of a foreign model of operation. So I am glad that Director Vrba is running it this way. Although he is probably laughing now that I complain a lot otherwise (laughs).

What do you complain about?

It’s not even things I want for myself as much as for my research group. There are thirty of us now, but we have so many projects that I have to take on another twenty people. And I don’t have the space for them without us having to be spread out over three buildings. I need them to be together. So this is what we are discussing now, for example.

In Japan, they wanted to keep you after two years of your work. You were guaranteed a lifetime position, why didn't you take advantage of it?

That was a noteworthy achievement, even for the Japanese, and I could have stayed until retirement. It was the National Institute for Materials Science. I just didn’t enjoy the work. I thought, what am I really bringing to the company besides patents and papers? I missed the interaction with the students.

Autor: Archive CEITEC BUT

I’m sure you had and still have many tempting job offers. What makes CEITEC so special that you turn down other, even better-paying positions?

CEITEC is run in a great way, basically the American way. The group leader has his research and when he leaves, the research goes with him. No one replaces him in his work. The lab is offered to someone else who brings in a new topic. In contrast, the system that is common elsewhere in the Czech Republic, but also in Austria, for example, is that there is a professor and many associate professors. And they practically have to wait for the professor to retire so that one of them can become a new professor. By that time, they might be 55 years old and they don’t have the “drive” that they might have had when they were younger. For me, the most important thing is that my end “product” is people who leave my group and find success. They don’t have to wait until I retire, or die, to be in the top positions.

Roughly how many people are we talking about?

I’ll tell you exactly. Nineteen former members of the group are now heads of research groups or professors. I’m very proud of that because the usual scenario would be to produce just one, pat him on the back, and send him to Germany, for example, and someone else takes his place. Piece for piece. I’ve got 19 of them, and I’m not done yet. I’m proud of it.

Are you still in contact with them? Do you know who’s working where and what they’re doing?

I have a map in my office with pins where my stars are. In addition to the group leaders, there are postdocs and other students of mine. All in all, I have about 60 stars around the world, and the rest are still here. And we do keep in touch, we call each other. I’ve also had a lot of people send me birthday greetings for my 50th birthday, and I was very touched by that. I don’t want to sound sentimental, but I have it set up so that I am responsible for all my students. At the same time, I see their success as my success – that I taught them something, and they didn’t end up unemployed. That charges me up.

And do you call them stars?

No, that's a new word for me now (laughs). I call them kids. They're all our kids (laughs). I have two kids myself, so it's the same at work. I try to make sure they grow up to be good people professionally.

Where specifically are your former students working now?

My first student, who had a Chinese passport, was a vice president in Australia, and now he’s the president of a big pharmaceutical company in China. My second student, with a Singaporean passport, is now the vice president of a pharmaceutical company in Singapore. When I travel to those countries, I always text them to see if we can grab a beer together. The last time, the Singaporean student and her husband invited me to dinner and thanked me. After my initial protests that I had basically done nothing and it was all her work and effort, she countered that my leadership had prepared her well for whatever she encountered professionally. And that’s the most telling thing and the biggest award for me. Not the articles or the research, but the accomplishments of my students.

Do you have Czech students in your group?

I had a group that was 50-50. Half Czechs, half foreigners. And it didn't work for me, because then they logically switched to their native Czech. I found that I worked better with foreigners, but not exclusively. I also have Czech students or postdocs in my group. But statistically speaking, there are a billion people in China, and the Czech Republic has ten million people, so what are the chances of a Czech applying to me? And that we will select him? Especially if I’m not offering a lifetime position? All I’m guaranteeing is that in four years, they'll have great CVs and, most importantly, the skills to be accepted anywhere.

There are people of different nationalities, cultures, and religions in your group. Is it difficult to unite them? At first, the only connection they have is their interest in science and English.

It’s true that I have people here from different parts of the world, and I don’t think there is a research group in the Czech Republic where there are so many nationalities. At the beginning they seem strange to each other – that’s logical – they seem strange because they are different. But then they get to know each other, enrich each other, and find out that they are normal people experiencing the same problems – they have families, children, and health concerns, too. That’s what I love about it. There’s a lady from China and a lady from India sitting here and they’re best friends, which probably wouldn’t normally happen to them. We live in a bubble of our own here with no outside pressures.

Autor: Archive CEITEC BUT

What does a student learn with you?

The BUT specifically, but also the city of Brno, allows students to apply for junior grants, which is a great thing, and again, it’s not common everywhere. It’s like in sports. The student trains at these small races to see how the race works. He can prepare for it and then we increase his benefits. By the time he leaves, he’s a top athlete – he can write a grant. My PhD students can do a whole project based on an assignment – measure it, analyze it, and then assemble the whole product, that is, the paper, and sell it. And once you’ve mastered the process, you just keep copying it. That’s my strategy.

Who inspires you?

I am inspired by people from other fields. I started with Jim Rohn, a successful American speaker, then Jan Mühlfeit, former Microsoft CEE Director, and finally, I started listening to Warren Buffett, whom I quote most often. These are all people at the top of the industry who have a very wise approach to life. I learned from them and adopted a lot of things from them. Specifically, only working where I like and with people that I like. But I have also been asking successful people from scientific circles at various conferences what advice they could give me.

What’s the first piece of advice that comes to mind?

I mostly remember advice that went against my expectations. This happened at a party in Japan, and there was a famous scientist – now retired – Sumio Iijima. I introduced myself to him at the time, saying that I was a young group leader, and asked what advice he had for me for my life. And he told me to make contact, but not with old people like him, but with young people (laughs). That’s what a famous successful scientist is telling me! But on the contrary, I thought, you want to keep in touch with successful people. So I thought at that time, what is this nonsense? But it sticks in my head, and I'll appreciate the advice in five, ten years.

How did he explain himself?

The way he described it to me was that although he was a Japanese scientist, he had several contacts with scientists his age from Korea. And even though Japanese-Korean relations are at zero, he can call them anytime and ask them anything. He told me honestly. And that’s what I tell my people: I will always support you if you want anything, want me to connect you with somebody – I’ll do it, but the main value is not me, it's the people, the colleagues who are here with you. In a few years, when you’re elsewhere, higher up, you can turn to these colleagues, and you’ll know what to expect from them. You don’t have to talk all the time but keep track of where they are.

You can tell that mentoring students is charging you because we still haven’t got to your articles and research. Is that on the back burner?

Of course, I’m also charged by research because we’re doing interesting things. I like my job because I can do whatever I want. For example, we’ve now decided to 3D print structures out of lunar basalt for space applications. Do I have a grant for that? No, I don’t have a grant. But I have the money and I want to invest in it. And what’s it gonna be? Probably a couple of articles... but maybe the student who’s one of the few people to 3D print structures for future constructions on the Moon will be hired by Elon Musk or some multinational construction company. I don’t know, it’s a new field for us. We’ll see how it goes. But the point is, I can do what I choose to do. And there are many ideas.

You’re working on a wide range of topics, from nanorobots to electrochemical research, and now you’re talking about space applications. Do they have a connection?

Let me explain my research philosophy. Everyone just asks about nanorobots – what they do, how they work – and I’m tired of it. We’re not doing anything unique. We’re combining familiar things like Legos – but in a new way. For example, every kid can 3D print today, but try printing an electrode. To actually make it conductive? We spent two years on that. So it’s always about how you use the skills you have and connect them in another field. And that’s a challenge that I enjoy. Similarly, we’re looking at generating electricity from vibrations (from noise, when walking), producing hydrogen, and storing it as ammonia; hand in hand with that, we are producing ammonia in a way that won’t consume too much energy. To summarize and get back to the nanorobot thing – if I were to just focus on that, I’d obviously invent a better nanorobot that moves better, but without applications, and that’s useless to me. Speaking of nanorobots, we’re, for example, focusing on detecting microplastics in water and upcycling them or removing bacterial biofilm. We’ve also been working on nanorobots for a space mission for four years. By combining research directions – such as 3D printing, nanorobots, space, microplastics, biomedicine, and energy – we are getting knowledge into places where few people can go, and we are benefiting tremendously from the combinations within the group.

You have authored an incredible 900 scientific papers, which is unique. What’s your driving force?

When I was still in Singapore 15 years ago, I had ambitions to complete as many projects successfully as possible. More like I needed to prove to myself that I could do great research. I know I can, and I know that there are better people than us – that’s okay. Now I really don’t care if I have twenty more. Warren Buffett doesn’t care about having twenty million more either (laughs). I’ve been told that I can’t have that many articles and that it’s a scam. It isn’t. I worked with students during the day and wrote articles and grants late into the night to fund the whole thing.

Do you have time for any hobbies?

I read a lot, mostly science fiction stories. Luckily, I have already created my sci-fi (laughs) – with those nanorobots and 3D printing structures out of lunar magma rock, so I don’t have to read anymore because I live my own sci-fi story. I also enjoy running and cycling.

How long did it take your wife to stop complaining about your working late?

That’s a touchy subject. About six or seven years. I’m really sorry, and if I could give anything back, it would be more time with my family. When I was writing those articles and grants at night, my wife had to watch the movies alone. And that’s how it was every night, unfortunately. Now, I often watch TV with her and the kids, and I don’t work until two anymore. I’m too old for that now, too.

Do your kids want to go into science too?

I don’t make them, nor is it something I would wish. I want them to be happy with their lives. Both kids are in secondary school now. But it’s funny how they hold up a mirror to you. They take on both positive and negative qualities (laughs). Oliver is going to be 18 soon, I went to see him at 10 PM and I told him: Oliver, stop it, it’s late, it will work out with the exam. And he said: But Dad, I have to, isn’t this what life’s about? Performance?” (laughs) Where did he get that rubbish from? (laughs) I don’t tell him, of course, but he can see for himself what Dad does in the evenings. So that’s why I try to slow down, too, so he doesn’t think a man has to work all the time.

You have celebrated your 50th birthday. Did you take stock?

In several ways. As Warren Buffett says, life is like a snowball – everything you’ve done adds up. And now the snowball has just started rolling, sometimes too fast, and you have to run away from it (laughs). So my wife and I made a deal that I would work for another 50 years and then we would enjoy retirement for 20 years (laughs). Then, I also mistakenly thought that my wife and I had just been jumping from an ice floe to an ice floe, not knowing whether we would land on an ice floe or fall into the water. We just moved from Spain to Japan, and we didn’t know what was going to happen. And I realized that it’s not like that, that I’m like Elsa from Frozen. It’s funny to be comparing myself to a fairy tale princess, but she was able to wave her hand and create ice. We all make our own way. As successful people say, we create our future ourselves.

What’s your biggest accolade? Besides your successful students?

When Richard Compton from Oxford went to get me a beer, despite his diabetes and difficulty walking, he said: Martin, I want to tell you that you do great science, and better than us. Even when I protested, saying they do it differently and brilliantly, too, he insisted. He finished by telling me that he would go and get me a beer, not wanting to hear any more contradiction. The human tribute is the greatest reward for me. He could have told the waiter or one of his colleagues. The most famous electrochemist in the world, my idol, is getting a beer for me – that’s all I need in life.

Author: Kristýna Filová, external copywriter, CEITEC BUT

Republished from CEITEC BUT


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