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Last Updated: Friday, 29 February 2008, 16:07 GMT
'I got a degree at 19, PhD at 21'
Katerina Aifantis (Image: ERC)
Dr Aifantis: developing new theories in the nanoworld
Katerina Aifantis is passionate about science.

She passed her degree at 19, and was awarded a PhD in natural sciences and mathematics at the age of 21.

Her studies took her from Michigan Tech in the US, to Cambridge University, UK, and then to the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

Dr Aifantis is one of the first recipients of a new funding programme for "exceptional" researchers who chose to work in Europe.

Now 24, she is the youngest recipient of one of the first European Research Council (ERC) starting grants. She will use the grant to spearhead a research programme studying mechanisms that exist at very small scales in the "tiny world" of nanotechnology.

The aim of the work is to develop new applications of nanotechnology in the field of biomedicine, such as miniature batteries for brain implants designed to treat diseases such as Parkinson's.

I met this beautiful community in science and I really wanted to be a part of it
Katerina Aifantis

Such devices would apply a current to dead nerves, and help activate parts of the brain that have been damaged, she says.

"I have to apply a new theoretical framework in order to capture what goes on in the nanoscale," she says.

She credits her precocity with growing up in a scientific environment - her father is a scientist working in the field of mechanics, who was surrounded by Nobel Prize winners.

"I met this beautiful community in science and I really wanted to be a part of it," she explains. "I also wanted to see exactly what he was doing so that motivated me to go fast in my studies."

At 16, she was given the opportunity to enrol at Michigan Tech by her High School principal.

She passed her degree in engineering at 19, then went to Cambridge University in the UK for her PhD. She was supervised by the applied mathematician, Professor John Willis.

"He let me go straight ahead into research instead of making me take courses and following the traditional path," she says.

Although she finished her dissertation within a year, she was unable to submit for a PhD at Cambridge because rules stipulate a minimum of three years of study.

"John Willis and I thought that I could transfer to a different university in Europe that has no time requirements," she explains.

She moved to the University of Groningen, which was doing similar experiments, and became the Netherland's youngest PhD ever, aged just 21.

"I guess I was very blessed in having wonderful people to support me, and also both my father and my mother were very supportive of my love for science," she says.

Her advice to other young scientists is to surround themselves by supportive mentors who will help them do something new in the field. "Motivation is the main thing," she adds.

She says the ERC starting grant helps ambitious young scientists who want to focus on their research.

"Because I went very fast, and I got my PhD when I was 21, I was looking for something challenging to do," she says.

"It's just something amazing for us young people wanting to start out dynamically," she adds.

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