IMDEA Materials Institute Alumni Interview – Saeid Loftian

Dr. Saeid Loftian was born in Iran. He joined IMDEA Materials in 2010, where he completed his PhD thesis entitled «High-Temperature Mechanical Behavior of Al/SiC Nanoscale Multilayers» under the supervision of Dr. Jon Molina and Prof. Javier LLorca. The thesis was awarded with the best PhD Thesis prize by the UC3M. Afterwards, he enrolled the Max Planck Institute for Iron Research as researcher and then moved to Cranfield University. He is currently Research Fellow in Materials and Structures at the Department of Naval Architecture, Ocean & Marine Engineering at the University of Strathclyde (Glasgow, Scotland).

You did your PhD at the IMDEA Materials Institute and your work was awarded with the best PhD Thesis prize by the UC3M. Besides that, can you tell us a little bit about you and your experience at IMDEA Materials?

I obtained my BSc and MSc degrees in Materials Science and Engineering from the Iran University of Science and Technology (IUST) and Isfahan University of Technology (IUT) respectively. After graduation, I started my career as an R&D researcher in the industry and at the same time, I worked as a lecturer in the Azad University in Iran. After four years in the industry, I felt that I needed to strengthen my knowledge and experience a new research environment.

I joined the IMDEA Materials Institute in 2010 and started my research on high-temperature nanomechanics under the supervision of Dr. Jon Molina and Prof. Javier Llorca. Despite being a young research institute when I joined IMDEA, the level of professionalism, distinctive strategy, diverse environment, and friendly culture was mature. I like to give credit to all pioneer researchers who started and progressed the institute with Javier’s leadership. As a researcher from a foreign country, I found Spanish people very welcoming and easygoing, so this acceptance culture inside the institute was terrific. All the colleagues in the institute did not hesitate to help the newcomers in a different situation. I do not want to talk a lot about my supervisors, Jon and Javier, as they both know how I owe my research career to both of them. Still, I would like to mention that their expert guidance and consideration was not limited to my PhD work but also touched other aspects of my life.

My project started with a collaboration between Dr. Molina and Prof. Llorca with Prof. Chawla (formerly in Arizona State University, now in Purdue University) and Prof. Misra (previously in Los Alamos National Lab, now in the University of Michigan). The collaboration outcome was very promising and the results were published in several peer-review journal papers and presented in various prestigious conferences. Besides the innovative research field, all those results were awarded the best thesis prize at UC3M.

Obviously, receiving a PhD is a great milestone for anybody, but institutions also leave a mark on people. What do you value most about your stage at IMDEA Materials from a personal point of view?

Answering this question is difficult as I like to pick various values that I think IMDEA Materials promotes. Still, I stay with one value I like the most and is it that IMDEA Materials is a people-oriented place.

Work in the IMDEA Materials Institute changed my attitude to various aspects of my academic career and research life. The teamwork level, the collaboration between multiple universities and institutions, innovative environment, ambitious targets, and most importantly, the people-oriented ambience were inspiring.

After your PhD, you moved to the Max Planck Institute for Iron Research and then to two prestigious universities such as Cranfield University and the University of Strathclyde. Now that you have plenty of experience as a researcher, what are the perspectives you have for your future?

At a professional level, my passion is to pursue my career goals in academia. As you mentioned, I have worked as an academic researcher in different countries: Spain (IMDEA Materials Institute), Germany (Max-Planck-Institut für Eisenforschung GmbH), England (Cranfield University), and now in Scotland (University of Strathclyde); and collaborated closely with various scientists across the world. Collaborative relationships are crucial elements of a successful research program. I learnt at IMDEA that it takes many years to establish a quality research collaboration. Therefore, it is essential to have reasonable expectations regarding how much can be accomplished in a short amount of time, and it is always important to do your best and deliver your part of the work at a high standard level.

At present, besides being a member of the Offshore Engineering Institute at the University of Strathclyde, I am working as a researcher in the Centre of Advanced Materials for Renewable Energy Generation (CAMREG). The Centre is a joint effort between Strathclyde and Edinburgh’s Universities in collaboration with other universities and industries across the UK. My research focuses on using novel, smart, and multifunctional materials and structures to address the existing and arising challenges in renewable energy conversion and energy storage. The high standard delivery in CAMREG keystone projects initiated several collaborations that ended up in proposals preparation with different research groups across the university and at the national and international levels. We just received the approval letter for our proposal (£1m) from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to investigate adaptive stretchable materials for wave energy converters. My role is the Co-IP in the project. I have also secured two funds consisting of (1) EPSRC flexible fund and (2) High-Value Manufacturing Catapult, Route To Impact (RTI) fund. I lead them as PI in collaboration with various institutions and industries, including IMDEA Materials. The EPSRC-flex fund aims to investigate new strategies to develop hybrid metal-composite joints using Additive Manufacturing (AM) for marine energy applications. In the RTI project, the main target is to correlate materials characterisation (e.g. mechanical properties, interface characterisation and residual stress measurement) with process parameters to fabricate a predictive AM part for remanufacturing purpose. I recently secured a SuperGen ORE Hub flexible fund as Co-IP in collaboration with Cranfield University when the aim is to investigate the corrosion and fatigue protection of offshore wind turbine structures using different AM techniques. Besides, I am involved in several lectures at the University of Strathclyde at BEng, MSc, and PhD levels. Moreover, I am co-supervising the individual and group projects of several MEng and MSc students.

Saeid, you form part of the beginnings of the IMDEA Materials Institute. You lived the transfer to the new facilities, the creation of new research lines and groups. Now that IMDEA Materials has received de María de Maetzu seal, which recognises it as one of the leading research institutions of Spain, how do you feel about the progress made from the institute?

You are correct. When I joined IMDEA Materials there were less than 25 people working there. Looking at the institute with more than 150 people doing state of the art research makes me proud to have been a member during this transition. Regarding receiving de María de Maetzu seal and the recognition of IMDEA Materials as one of the leading research institutions in Spain, I should say well done to all members and please accept my congratulations. As I did not know about this recognition, after reading about the seal itself and lady María de Maetzu, I understand its importance. From various aspects, I think IMDEA Materials well deserved such recognition. Look at the high standard research delivery, strategic collaboration with key institutions and industrial partners inside Spain, Europe and across the world, and always making bold decisions to pick challenging research areas; all of these facts make IMDEA Materials special when it comes to performing innovative research. 

During the last years, when all research institutions suffered from the pandemic situation, IMDEA Materials kept doing an excellent work. The institute Field-Weighted Citation Impact (FWCI) at 2020 is 2.05, which is higher than most leading research institutes globally (e.g. MIT: 1.80, University of Oxford: 1.70, and University of Cambridge: 1.70). My personal FWCI was 3.16 in the calendar year 2017. ‎The achievement was due to the high-level research that I had the chance to conduct during my stay at the Max Planck Institute (Germany 2014-2016) and the IMDEA Materials Institute (Spain 2010-2014). Let me give you another example; my research field in IMDEA Materials was high-temperature nano/micromechanics. Up to the end of my PhD, all peer-reviewed publication in Europe in this particular subject were just from three institutions: IMDEA Materials in Spain, EMPA in Switzerland, and MicroMaterials in the UK. If you check other fundamental research programmes in the institute, you can see how the management team and researchers keep being the pioneer in many aspects. Considering all these, I think the IMDEA Materials Institute well deserved all the recognitions during previous years, whether they were institutional or individual achievements.

Currently, the institute has a plan to train mainly PhDs and post-docs on transversal skills. Which of those skills are the one you would highlight from yourself, and if given the opportunity to learn some new ones, which ones would you chose?

I think it is an excellent decision from the management part to give PhDs and Post-Docs opportunities to participate in transversal skills classes. I hope PhDs take advantage of these occasions. I personally found the way after PhD as a challenging path. During your PhD, you focus on your research. Near the end, you should decide about your future and applying for new opportunities based on your decision in the Post-Doc route or industrial path and, at the same time, keep your focus to finalise your thesis. In an institute like IMDEA Materials, I assume that you will continue your research up to the last days as you need to improve your CV for future adventures. These are challenging tasks, but these transversal skills can help a lot to add some new resources to know yourself better and make a better decision for your future. I wish I had the chance to join many of them, like presentation skills (using your appearance and voice), problem-solving, data analysis, team management, communicational skills, listening and feedback providing, and ethics in science & work. It took time for me to reach acceptable presentation and communicational skills after my PhD. I like to emphasis that this is a great idea, and the PhDs should use the opportunity wisely. To give an example, I want to share a statistic with you. Research from the Royal Society in the UK related to 2010 illustrated that 53% of the PhD graduates would end up in non-academic/non-research roles directly after graduation. Of the remaining who will start a junior academic career, 26.5% will join the previous 53%. From the ones that continue the academic profession, 17% will continue in a non-university research-related career in government and R&D sections, and just 3.5% will continue as permanent research staff. What I want to say is that only a PhD is not enough, and as a PhD researcher, you need some other skills to catch the best opportunities for yourself.

Having those transversal courses is essential from another perspective, particularly during the pandemic and future new normality. As the chance to join the conferences is now limited to virtual conferences, it is difficult for PhD students to increase their future collaboration networks. I think some courses to familiarise the PhDs with employment-oriented online services could be beneficial.

What career advice or message would you give to PhD students or early post-docs?

During our parents time, a person started a career and retired in the same organisation. This has changed in our time. Stability comes with quality. Do your best, try to stay calm and do not stress about the future. Enjoy your time as a PhD and try to catch as much as possible from outstanding people around you. Use your coffee time to know your colleagues. Very soon, you will meet them in a different situation, and the strong network you have made during this time will help you with your next steps. The top-notch scientists around you are a great resource; try to watch them and follow their advice. The PhD is not just about learning about your research subject. It is a great time to learn the research methodology; being an engineer means you will think about various challenges, no matter what they are, in an algorithmic manner.

And, most importantly, enjoy Madrid! The weather, food, and people are all great.