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PhD Marcin Sleczkowski: Lack of self-confidence is a problem among Polish society

PhD Maciej Sleczkowski specializes in supramolecular chemistry. His postdoctoral experience was in polymer chemistry. He is currently interested in studying the interactions that govern colloidal stability and how we can formulate inks carrying complex chemical functions. For the past year, he has been contributing to the Canon Production Printing team as an Innovation Scout. He is a graduate of the Silesian University of Technology and Eindhoven University of Technology. 

The article is part of a series of Coopercnius conversations with Polish scientists with foreign scientific backgrounds.

How did your adventure with science begin?

I had my first encounter with scientific work during a summer internship after my second year of engineering studies. I completed this internship in a laboratory at the University of Southampton in southern England. The idea of going for an internship arose during the second year of my studies, specifically during organic chemistry lab classes, which I greatly enjoyed. Since I had family in southern England and regularly visited them every year to earn some extra money, I decided it would be better to spend my time doing something more enjoyable than physical labor, even if it was unpaid (which it actually was). After returning to Poland, I immediately started collaborating with my future thesis advisor to continue scientific research in his group. From that moment on, I spent most of my free hours between classes, and often after hours, in the chemical laboratory of the Silesian University of Technology. So, you could say that from my third year of studies, I have been deeply involved in scientific work, and it has remained that way to this day.

What factors led you to decide to go abroad? What were the biggest challenges associated with this decision?

Immediately after my studies, I did not plan to leave Poland. I completed my master’s degree in 2014, having also participated in three foreign summer internships. For comparison, I also had experience in scientific work in Poland as a volunteer from my third year and then at the CMPiW PAN as a master’s student. In the summer of 2014, I considered the possibility of doctoral studies at the Technical University of Łódź, but ultimately the research topic turned out to be too far from my current interests. After a short and unsuccessful period in Łódź, I got a job as a chemist in Kraków. There, after some time, I started feeling “suffocated.” In my current position, I did not see any scientific challenges ahead of me. As a chemist, I wanted to create molecules with desired applications to dream about creating technologies based on new compounds. The only way to fulfill these dreams was through a Ph.D. in chemistry. At that time in Poland, only a few groups could offer conditions competing with those in Western Europe. Simultaneously, my brother was then a Ph.D. student in Paris and encouraged me to apply to the Netherlands, which he also knew well. This is how I turned my attention to the very strong chemical research sector in the Land of Tulips. From the beginning, I only applied to the best groups, which resulted in my acceptance into the group of Prof. E. W. Meijer. When an offer from such a scientist is on the table, the decision to leave is simple: you get such an opportunity once in a lifetime. The biggest challenge was, of course, parting with my girlfriend, who joined me in the Netherlands only after some time, which at that time was also not certain. So, in relation to this question, the biggest challenge, as for many people, was the personal issues related to leaving my previous life in Poland.

What benefits does working in an international scientific environment bring compared to working in Poland?

People from different cultures have very different ways of solving problems. For me, the greatest value is the opportunity to collaborate with the best people in their fields. They are always open to others’ opinions, love to discuss, and approach topics with passion. It is this interaction with such people that provides stimuli for further development, deepening knowledge, and thinking about the world around us and its mysteries. In Poland, this trend is also reversing, and scientific discussion is starting to take the appropriate form. Young people must see that their efforts are valued. For a young scientist who is still a student, the best motivation is the possibility of a partnership interaction with an expert, i.e., a two-way discussion. Then the sense of purpose in what we do increases.

Do you maintain contact with Polish scientific communities?

Of course, I have never cut ties with friends who stayed at universities in Poland. I also strive to keep this contact substantive, meaning we pursue scientific goals together as well.

What are you currently working on, and what is the main focus of your scientific research?

Currently, I am working on the development of digital printing technology. My primary interest is the development and commercialization of printing technology beyond its current application (mainly graphics). Working at Canon Production Printing as an Innovation Scout, I aim to instill in my colleagues a paradigm shift regarding what printing truly is. Printing, in essence, is the highly precise application of chemical compounds onto surfaces. This concept is my starting point in seeking new applications.

What are the latest achievements in your field of research that particularly interest you?

One of the most exciting advancements is the precise application of chiral, highly organized materials onto surfaces. This technology allows for the creation of devices such as circularly polarized light-emitting diodes (CP-LEDs).

What is your most significant scientific achievement or discovery? Why is it important?

My most significant discovery is that enantiomers do not behave identically in chiral solvents. For centuries, this question puzzled chemists. We demonstrated that the difference between enantiomers is measurable when dissolved in a chiral solvent. The core issue is that the difference becomes apparent only when additive effects in aggregation, known as cooperative effects, come into play. This discovery is crucial for addressing the fundamental question: why on Earth do all chiral structures in living organisms—sugars, amino acids, nucleic acids—exist only in one enantiomeric form, specifically the left-handed form?

These cooperative effects must have led to this situation because cooperativity has the unique property of amplifying minimal differences by multiplying individual energetic effects across numerous repeating units. In our case, the difference between the S and R enantiomers in a chiral solvent is minimal and theoretically immeasurable. However, since these enantiomers form specific structures called supramolecular polymers with a helical structure, this minimal difference is multiplied by the number of repeating units in each helix (up to a million). Consequently, even this very small value, when multiplied by a million, resulted in a tangible and experimentally detectable difference.

What scientific problems in your discipline do you most look forward to solving and why?

I would very much like to see the development of high-efficiency supercapacitors (batteries) made from polymer materials. Low-entropy energy storage is currently the biggest challenge in the energy sector. Existing technologies that focus on using rare earth metals are fundamentally harmful to us. Firstly, their extraction causes significant environmental damage. Secondly, they are primarily mined in developing countries where working conditions are often inhumane. Thirdly, this sector is dominated by China, increasing our dependence on a separate geopolitical entity in a crucial sector of the economy. An indigenous technology based on polymer materials would solve all three of these fundamental problems.

What are the biggest challenges you face in your scientific work?

The biggest challenge remains working with people. The so-called recency bias is a surprisingly widespread phenomenon, unfortunately, even in the scientific community. I strive not to avoid difficult topics in my work but to ask uncomfortable questions. Scientific work is mainly about asking questions, and we should always remember that.

What are the most important research questions you plan to address in the near future? What development directions do you see in your field?

Currently, my research questions are directly related to my current work, which I outlined in point 5. Looking more broadly, I have set a major goal of initiating a limited reform in the scientific sector from the grassroots level, specifically initiating broader cooperation between industry and research institutions.

Are there practical consequences or potential applications of your scientific research? How do you see their impact on society or the economy?

Absolutely, there are practical implications, which is why I advocate for commercialization. Viewing printing as a method of precisely applying chemical compounds onto surfaces opens up limitless possibilities for how this technology can transform our lives. This could revolutionize various industries by enabling the creation of advanced materials and devices, thus having a significant impact on both society and the economy.

What advice would you give to young scientists at the beginning of their scientific careers?

I would advise them to be bold, not fear dreaming big, and aim high. The world is open to them, but only confidence combined with the right support will ensure a good start. A lack of confidence is a significant problem, especially in Polish society. It always strikes me how we often try to compare ourselves to Western European countries. In many fields, we have nothing to be ashamed of, and in some, we even lead technologically. It’s time to shed these complexes and conquer the world.

Fot. Unsplash

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