Materials researcher who loves hard and highly structured matter

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Lena Falk

She conducts research into wear-resistant materials which withstand heavy loads at high temperatures.

Those who know the Chalmers researcher Lena Falk know that she herself is also made of tough stuff. That is something she may have benefited from during her long career in the academic world.

When Falk came to Chalmers to study engineering physics in the mid-70s almost all her fellow students were men. There were few women who applied for technical courses. This was not something that Falk attached any importance to.

“I saw it as an obvious choice, since maths, physics and chemistry were the most enjoyable subjects at high school,” she says bluntly.  

It was then an equally obvious choice to take the step towards a career in the world of research. Falk is now a professor in the Department of Physics at Chalmers. 

Enjoys walking to the Botanical Garden​

Falk is sitting in the shade under a leafy tree in the Botanical Garden in Gothenburg. She likes walking down there to relax and enjoy the beautiful environment – no matter what the season. Today the summer is showing its most beautiful aspect and the air is mild and scented with mock orange.  An inquisitive squirrel peeks out and then scurries on among Japanese maples and colourful flower borders. 

Sometimes Falk comes here to read a good book, but since the current one – Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s latest book “The Labyrinth of the Spirits” – weighs a ton  it has had to stay at home. Even though she mainly comes here to relax, she may also sit here and work on a scientific article. 

Unlike the surrounding plants and all other living things, she conducts research into inorganic, hard materials such as nitrides, oxides, carbides and various mixed compounds of these. This concerns wear-resistant materials that can withstand stress such as high loads, wear and high temperatures. 

Industry is demanding durable materials in a number of areas. For example, for two years Falk worked on the development of cutting tools for what was then Sandvik Tooling. The project involved providing the tools with a wear-resistant outer layer in order to increase both their durability and their service life. 

“My research involves the design of materials with properties that are as optimised as possible. It’s really exciting to understand what creates different structures in materials and how the structures affect the properties.” 

Overcomes the resolution limit of visible light ​

In order to study and design materials down to the nanoscale, or even the atomic scale, sophisticated equipment is required. Falk’s work therefore involves the use of what are known as transmission electron microscopes. This means that the microscope uses the smallest particles, electrons, in order to obtain images of extremely small objects. This technology can be used to overcome the resolution limit of visible light thus allowing you to study fine-scale structures.

Ever since Falk began her research career, she has worked with electron microscopy. In the Chalmers Materials Analysis Laboratory there are a number of sophisticated and in some cases unique instruments. The microscopes can be used by researchers both within and outside Chalmers and are also available to specialists in industry. For many years Falk has arranged microscopy courses, where both academics and representatives from industry can gather to follow developments, exchange experiences and network. 

She puts the doctoral studies on the map​

In recent years Falk has been appointed Vice Head of Department for the department’s doctoral programmes. She is also the Director of Graduate Studies for Physics in the Graduate School of Materials Science. It required a bit of persuasion before she accepted the role of Director of Studies, but she is now very enthusiastic about both roles. 

“It’s fun to put doctoral studies on the map, create new contact points, good collaboration and a good structure.” 

Chalmers has recently initiated a project to develop an electronic platform for the individual study plans (ESP) of doctoral students. Falk has the role of project owner and chairs the steering committee working on the project. 

“The hope is that the new platform will improve the overview and follow-up of doctoral students’ research studies. It’s also fascinating to see how the doctoral students develop during their period of study with us. I hadn’t thought about it much before, but it’s really great to see how people grow.”

More about Lena Falk

Born: In Nässjö on 10 October 1956, grew up in Jönköping. 

Lives: In an apartment in Norra Guldheden , Gothenburg – at the top of the highest building in the block. 

Family: Lives alone. 

Job: Professor in the Department of Physics at Chalmers, Vice Head of Department for doctoral programmes and Director of Studies for Physics in the Graduate School of Materials Science. 

Career in brief: Took natural sciences at high school and then studied engineering physics at Chalmers. After her undergraduate studies she was accepted as a doctoral student in what was then the Department of Physics which was common to Chalmers and to the University of Gothenburg. She completed part of her doctoral studies at Rockwell Science Centre outside Los Angeles in the USA. She defended her doctoral thesis in 1986 and since then Falk has worked at Chalmers. She was appointed as an unpaid Associate Professor (Docent) in 1991, promoted to Senior Lecturer in 1998 and to Professor in 2004. During 2010 and 2011 she worked part time at what was then Sandvik Tooling, through a project funded by the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research (SSF). Over the years she has also arranged a large number of microscopy courses at Chalmers for specialists from both the academic world and industry. 

Leisure interests: “I read fiction and like to cook. There are plenty of exciting cookery books to be inspired by.  When I was younger, I did a lot of photography and I also travelled a great deal, mainly in Europe and the USA. The first time I went to the USA was in the 1980s. At that time, it was a completely different lifestyle from that in Sweden. And people in California were really laid back, and everyone drove cars everywhere. It felt like a completely new world.”

Favourite places for inspiration: “Going out and walking is always good for inspiration. Just walking to work can give one new ideas and provide a solution to something I’ve been thinking about.” 

Most proud about: “There are a number of scientific articles that I’m proud of, as well as some grants and collaborations. Just now I think it’s really great that we managed to get Chalmers to invest in the development of an electronic platform for doctoral students’ individual study plans (ESP) – a proposal that was put forward by a working group appointed by the Doctoral programmes committee (FUN) with myself as the convenor. ESP will allow us to follow up on the doctoral programmes more effectively than before. We will rapidly be able to see what we need to know and will also be able to follow up the studies and obtain statistics. I am the project owner and chair the steering committee working on the project.”

Motivation: “It’s inquisitiveness that drives me in my research: Being able to understand and explain things and identify relationships. To create a reasonable process, you need structure and order. I like to work methodically.”

First memory of physics: “It was as a child when I saw the phenomenon of the ‘cold wall law’ one warm day at home in the dining room. If you have something cold in a glass, you get condensation on the outside and my dad  explained to me how that happened.”

Best thing about being a researcher: “The freedom to be able to work on something you find interesting, fascinating and challenging, and to be able to control how you do it yourself. That freedom has a price, but I’ve always thought it was worth it. Admittedly, it’s a freedom within certain limits, but I’ve still largely been able to control what, when, how and with whom I conduct my work. It’s really great doing both research and teaching. The price you have to pay is a lot of uncertainty – both in terms of employment and funding. And being a researcher, as is sometimes said, isn’t a job but a lifestyle.”

Challenges of the job: “When it comes to research, it’s having to succeed in obtaining the funds and resources needed to do good research and to provide new knowledge in different contexts. I’m currently doing a lot of work on trying to set up good procedures within the department’s doctoral programmes. The aim is for all those involved to get the support and help they need through different stages of the process of being admitted and doing doctoral studies.”

Dream for the future: “To be able to continue working on what I think is interesting and rewarding.”