Athina Anastasaki: New ways to recycle old polymers

by | Feb 26, 2024

Polymer chemist Athina Anastasaki talks about establishing her career, inroads into polymer recycling, and resilience in academia.
Portrait of Athina Anastasaki.

Originating from the small island of Crete, Athina Anastasaki comes from a tight knit family whose work ethic and love of learning influenced her future academic trajectory early on.

Today, Anastasaki is an assistant professor and leads a research group at ETH Zurich, focusing her energy on the exciting world of polymer chemistry. She is particularly interested in combatting the critical issue of plastic waste, working alongside her team to advance procedures for recycling polymers commonly found in plastics by breaking them down and rebuilding them for reuse.

Beyond her research, Anastasaki is navigating the challenging and demanding path of an early career researcher, where moving past feelings of inadequacy and taking rejection in stride seem to come naturally. Amidst these challenges, she authored an article detailing her approach to navigating the intricacies of academia, particularly on handling grant rejections, reflecting that being unsuccessful is “not necessarily a reflection on your scientific rigor or potential”. She exudes positivity, emphasizing the universality of encountering good people in every corner of life.

Although currently in the middle of her tenure review, Anastasaki took time out of her busy schedule to talk to us about her experience as a young researcher, her work with polymers, and how she nurtures the curiosity of her students to help them excel as scientists.

Anastasaki was this year’s recipient of the Macromolecular Rapid Communications Junior Researcher Award 

Tell us about yourself. Where did you grow up?

Although I originate from the isle of Crete, my parents decided to start a family in Athens so that their children could have better education opportunities. I grew up in Chalandri, a suburb of Athens, with my younger brother. Both my grandmothers played an important part in my upbringing, as my parents had demanding jobs and were working full-time.

I have fond memories of my mother’s mother, Athina, whom I was named after. She used to pick me and my brother up from school and we would have lunch together. When my mother finished work, she would come and take us home. I was also very close to my Cretan grandmother, Rena, with whom we used to spend the whole summer together doing various activities such as swimming, going to church, eating ice cream, and simply chatting throughout the day.

Did you have other career plans in mind or was being a scientist always your dream job?

As a child, I did not have a career plan in mind. I think it is hard for a child to dream of a specific job. However, I used to watch my parents reading almost daily. Whether they were reading newspapers, books, or work-related stuff, they seemed to me to be doing something very important. They were happy and content and it felt calming being around them when they were reading.

I guess this is how I got to love reading too. I first thought of following in my mum’s footsteps and becoming a doctor. Although I believe I would have also enjoyed a medical career, as I was growing up, I was fortunate to have many amazing teachers who inspired me and influenced me to the point that I started dreaming of becoming one myself.

Choosing chemistry came naturally, perhaps because my favorite teacher was a chemist, and he made lessons both fun and interesting. Although I initially planned on becoming a school teacher, I eventually expanded my goal to become a scientist, allowing me to teach at a higher level.

What is your lab’s research focus?

The aim of my laboratory was initially to focus on synthetic polymer chemistry, which gradually expanded to include polymer self-assembly. In the last two years, a big part of our group studies depolymerization, also referred to as chemical recycling, of polymeric materials synthesized by radical polymerizations.

How did you get started in this area?

Polymer recycling had been on my mind since my Ph.D. days but I was skeptical about taking the risk to explore such a challenging research direction. As an independent principle investigator at ETH, I found the courage to pursue this new line of research in my own laboratory.

ETH is one of the unique universities that also offer an annual research budget, which means I can take research risks without worrying about funding. To this date, pursuing this research direction has been the best academic decision I have ever made. It began with me printing the only four papers on the topic (i.e., depolymerization of CRP-made polymers) and handing them over to my student with the quote “try them all out and let me know if they actually work”.

What materials do you create and how are they being used?

We mostly focus on developing new synthetic strategies rather than creating new materials. For instance, we aim at simplifying complex polymerization processes to make them more user-friendly and environmentally benign to increase their chances to be commercialized.

Your team published a paper on depolymerization and chemical recycling. In simple terms, can you explain these processes?

The depolymerization paper published in 2022 is the very first publication from our group in the area of chemical recycling. In simple terms, chemical recycling is the process by which a polymer breaks down back to its original constituents (i.e., monomers). The recovered monomers can then be re-polymerized and converted back to the initial material without any loss of the original properties. This means that the second-generation material can still fulfil its original use.

What polymers are you trying to break down to reuse and why?

Our investigation started with the chemical recycling of polymethacrylates (i.e., plexiglass) and we are currently exploring other types of plastic as well, such as polystyrene. Being able to regenerate the starting materials intact not only has an environmental impact (e.g., addressing plastic pollution) but will also yield invaluable resources for synthesizing new materials.

What do you consider important breakthroughs in your field in the last decade?

In the specific field of polymer chemistry, I am fascinated by recent progress on sustainable polymers, 3D printing, and mechanical and chemical recycling. I also admire my colleagues who have made very significant progress on imaging techniques — we can now see individual polymer chains!

Do you have a peer whose research particularly impresses/inspires you?

Kris Matyjaszewski from Carnegie Mellon University, the inventor of atom transfer radical polymerization, is a colleague who truly inspires me. Aside from his exceptional research that has influenced the research in our lab, he remembers every single detail of all his >1000 publications by heart better than the respective first authors. He also genuinely cares about science and his passion for research is truly contagious. Above all, he also deeply cares about his students and mentees and is always happy to provide advice and support.

You published an article in Angewandte Chemie in 2022 about how to handle the rejection of grant proposals. Being rejected is a difficult thing. How did you push yourself to keep going? What advice can you give colleagues in a similar position?

Being rejected in a grant proposal usually affects you both emotionally and practically. Emotionally, one may feel “not good enough” and this can lead to feeling disappointed, a failure, and so on. Having had therapy at a younger age to address issues such as low self-esteem, I now know I am good enough and I no longer interpret a grant rejection as a failure but rather as an opportunity to improve.

Although the reasons for not getting a grant may not always seem fair or transparent, I take responsibility for my mistakes and focus on what I can further improve in my next attempt. The practical implications of a grant rejection are equally as important as being rejected itself. It could mean that one cannot afford to do the research they want and could be forced to not renew student’s and post-doc’s contracts. Having an optimistic perspective can help you deal with these implications. I always try to explore alternative funding routes, collaborate with industry, participate on bigger funding consortia, etc.

How do you approach your role as an academic teacher/mentor and how do you excite future generations of scientists for chemistry, especially materials and polymers?

Although I do not have kids, I imagine that being a mentor is, to some extent, like being a parent. Rather than try to exclusively excite future generations about what I care about (i.e., polymers or chemistry), I try to excite them about figuring out what truly excites them, no matter what that is.

Being in a materials department means that our students are exposed to various topics ranging from chemistry and physics to engineering, mathematics, and computer science. I always say at the beginning of my class that even if they realize that chemistry or polymers is not their true passion, then this is a very significant conclusion, and they should not settle for anything less.

As a mentor, I try to help my mentees maximize their full potential and make the academic choices they want rather than following what I want, what their family wants, or what society wants. I value my relationships with them and am always proud of how they grow.

What is:

Your favorite activity when you are not at the laboratory?

Watching a football match while eating pizza.

A new skill you would like to learn?

I started learning German and the next goal is to learn (or at least understand) Swiss German followed by French. I also plan to learn sailing.

A destination you would like to travel to right now?

I would only travel to see my friends and family regardless of where they are. My partner feels differently though, so the next one lined up is to explore the Caribbean.

A scientific discovery (any field of research, topic or time in history) do you wish you would have made and why?

I find the discovery of the telephone one of the most significant discoveries that has ever been made. No matter where I am in the world, I can talk to my family and friends.

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