Full Professor Adriana Creatore wins NWO Athena Award

Passion for plasma and people

December 3, 2021

On Friday December 3rd, Full Professor Adriana Creatore received the NWO Athena Award for outstanding women researchers. The sum of 50,000 euros is hers to spend on her research into the application of plasmas.

Adriana Creatore. Photo: Bart van Overbeeke

Her research into plasmas is undoubtedly the critical factor in her winning the NWO Athena Award. But Full Professor at Applied Physics and principal scientist at TU/e energy institute EIRES Adriana Creatore is not only a role model within the scientific arena; her personal commitment to sparking an enthusiasm for engineering in the next generation, her belief in diversity and her empathic leadership make her a passionate winner.

The Italian verb plasmare applies well to Athena Award winner Adriana Creatore. It can be translated as ‘to shape, to model’. Which is how she has approached her own scientific career, and as a coaching manager how she helps young scientists to shape their own role.

Within her research the word ‘plasma’ is pivotal. The word was first used by Irving Langmuir in 1927, to describe a partially ionized gas, rich in reactive particles. Langmuir drew a comparison with blood plasma, which similarly contains various particles.

Plasma generation and plasma processing of materials. Photos: PMP Group

Passion for plasma

“Plasma is such a complex medium,” expounds Creatore, Full Professor in the Plasma & Materials Processing group at the Department of Applied Physics. “The partially ionized gas has various reactive particles: electrons, radicals, ions and molecules. Conceptually, it falls between physics and chemistry, which I find fascinating. And it touches upon many other disciplines too, like materials science and applications (electrons and energy technology, for example), even electrical engineering. This is why I work with researchers from various disciplines.”

Controlling this complexity is for Creatore the key to creating plasma applications. Thus, with the aim of realizing new technologies, she builds materials with atomic-level precision, using plasmas and atomic layer deposition as her tools. Think of highly efficient solar cells, new electrocatalysts for building chemicals, and the storage of CO2. Clearly, her often fundamental research has many applications much needed in our society to bring about the energy transition. An important consideration for the jury in awarding her the Athena Award.

The start of everything

It was in the early 1990s that the Italian chemistry student Adriana Creatore became acquainted with TU/e. As one of the first Italian students with an Erasmus grant at her disposal, she came to the Department of Applied Physics. “That was the start of everything. This is where I fell in love with the plasma discipline, and with TU/e.”

Having gained her first degree and doctorate at the University of Bari, she was invited to become a postdoc in the Plasma & Materials Processing group chaired by Richard van de Sanden. She did not hesitate. “These days it is perfectly normal to work abroad, but twenty years ago I was one of the first in my circle at the university to leave Italy to build a career - and to stay in the Netherlands.” Since then she has unequivocally ‘gone Dutch’: “I work and reason like a Dutch person. I love rules and structure.”

It's not that I think all children should become researchers, but I do want them to be able to make a conscious choice about their future

Full Professor Adriana Creatore

Adriana Creatore teaching technology at primary school De Berckacker in Veldhoven. Photo: Hannie Coppelmans

Next generations

What motivates Creatore to make regular visits to primary and secondary schools to teach lessons on technology is her desire to have children encounter science early on. “At the start of your academic career, your chief concern is yourself and what you next step should be. But there comes a time when you start thinking about the next generations in science. It's not that I think all children should become researchers, but I do want them to be able to make a conscious choice about their future direction. To have them encounter technology and gain an impression of the kinds of job technology opens the door to.”

On seeing the documentary series Klassen, she was affected by the knowledge that the opportunities in the Dutch education system are not equally available to all children. “That program was a real eye-opener for me. It gave my outreach activities at schools a different meaning. I want to give everyone the opportunity to be better off, to play a role in our society– in the energy transition, for example, now facing us all.”

Leadership

As a full professor she manages a team of young scientists. “I feel it is important that I make the people around me aware of their own work and knowledge, of what they can achieve, what their strengths are and where they can improve. And to have them recognize that you can tackle problems from various perspectives.”

Whether her audience is a bachelor's student for whom the penny drops after hearing her explanation, a doctoral candidate she is supervising, or a postdoc with whom she is discussing his or her next career steps, it is all about good communication and choosing the right words. “I have a sticker on my laptop with a quote by the American writer Jack Kerouac: One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple. That's not always easy, not when you're a talkative Italian,” she says, laughing.

Science ambassadors

Science communication is very important to Creatore, telling others about what is happening within science, about its value to society. She is already doing this herself during her lessons in secondary education, but that is a drop in the ocean. “I can't do it all myself, this has to be tackled on a big scale, with science ambassadors, for example. We already have a couple of wonderful ones in the Netherlands, think of Robbert Dijkgraaf and Freek Vonk. Freek Vonk in particular appeals to a lot of children. But you can also go a step further and try to build a bridge between science and society. Supported by universities, businesses and research institutes.”

“It is so important to make people aware of the considerable role technology is playing in solving major societal issues. As well as the future generation, I'm talking here about the present one. This requires good communication. Take the energy transition. Without technical knowledge you can't help to bring this about. If science can really permeate into every part of our society, later on we can make the right decisions.”

Work as it is in 2022

Immediately after the interview, Creatore sends a mail with an article from Flow magazine: Work as it is in 2022. It's about empathic leadership, work happiness and chief happiness officers boosting work contentment at large tech companies. “None of that would go amiss here at TU/e,” believes Creatore.

She speaks from experience. “The academic world is individualistic in no small measure; your own agenda, plan, research and teaching always come first. You have to chart your own course in this competitive environment. But it is so important to keep looking at other people, your employees, to see them.”

It is something she is trying to do herself, to see others. As a full professor, as a manager, but most of all as a person: “The other day I came across a young woman on the campus, the afternoon was drawing to a close and we were both making a bathroom visit. I'd been teaching. I didn't know her but we struck up a conversation. ‘How are you?’ I asked her. We got chatting, about her PhD, what she was doing and how that was going, what she was struggling with. She simply needed to talk, and I probably did too. Talking costs nothing, but it does have an impact. You can show the other person that it is normal to have ups and downs. I had that too during my PhD. Giving others your attention, paying attention to each other, that can make a difference.”

Adriana Creatore: “It's not about how many women and expats you recruit. It's about how you ensure that the environment encourages people's ability to blossom in whatever way is their own. Only then are you achieving diversity.” Photo: Bart van Overbeeke

Role model

Creatore relates this story in passing, but afterwards realizes this is another of the reasons why she has received the Athena Award: as a woman who is a full professor in the hard sciences she is a role model.

Twenty years ago, coming to TU/e's Department of Applied Physics as one of the first Italian postdocs, she herself would have benefitted from just such a role model. “I arrived in an environment run by men. I did my best to belong, to adapt, to fit in. That made it somewhat easier in the beginning, but over time you start to realize that it's not something you should do if it isn't right for you. We attain diversity only when we accept people as they are. When we venture to be ourselves and find acceptance.”

Diversity isn't only about bringing together all the colors of the rainbow. It's about embracing all their nuances

Full Professor Adriana Creatore

Four of Creatore's male colleagues proposed her nomination for the Athena Award. “It is very pleasing to see that they believe in me. Being a role model isn't always at the front of my mind. And, of course, the most important thing is always going to be what you achieve in your field of science. But as a leader, it is your responsibility to keep on doing your bit. You have to keep nurturing your discipline, enabling it to develop.”

Work happiness

Returning for a moment to work happiness: “We are a highly diverse population here at the university. Everyone has their own ambitions, background and, of course, frustrations. Think of corona and how it has impacted on education, and research. Things don't always run smoothly and occasionally you don't feel as well understood and supported as you could be. If as a university we want to grow and to continue to attract talented individuals, this is something we have to turn our attention to. We have to venture to bring the work happiness of our employees up to a new level.”

“Being happy at work - when you can be yourself, and are accepted and supported - leads to better results. Years ago I would never have dared to say something about an article like this on work happiness. More than anything I wanted to blend in with the others. But if I'm telling others they need to show their colors, I have to be bold and do the same myself.”

About the Athena Award

The Athena Award is among the suite of NWO Science Awards intended for scientists who make a difference in the field of societal impact, team science, diversity and communication. The Athena Award is for outstanding women researchers. As well as Creatore, Associate Professor Marthe Walvoort (University of Groningen) has also won the award this year. They each receive the sum of €50,000 euros to spend on their research.

From our strategy: about talent

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Brigit Span
(Corporate Storyteller)

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