Meet António Vilanova, Research Fellow working on the Nanofabrication Optoelectronic Application’s Research Group at INL – International Iberian Nanotechnology Laboratory.
António obtained an MSc Degree in Environmental Engineering, in 2014, from the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Porto (FEUP), being awarded a Scholarship for Exceptional Academic Merit. In 2016, António was awarded a competitive individual FCT fellowship to carry on his PhD studies in chemical and biological engineering at FEUP. He obtained his PhD degree in February 2021. During his PhD work, he performed short research stays at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) in Cologne, Germany, and he communicated his work at 5 international conferences. Between 2014 and 2017, António was responsible for FEUP’s activities within the EU Project PECDEMO.
What distinguishes the science at INL from your experience at the University?
As stated in the INL mission, the goal here is to explore interfaces, therefore, I think that science at INL aims at a wider universe of applications. Arising from its unique characteristics, INL has a close relationship with many different institutions – companies, universities and other research centres, something that at University is not so easy to materialize.
Still, in my particular case, coming from an engineering field, at university I always worked with a practical application in mind for the scientific advances that we were developing, but I think INL broadens this view, mainly because there is a common basis for the work that is being developed, which is nanotechnology, something truly transversal in the 21st century, which triggers the interest of end users from numerous fields of expertise. Also, since all INLers share the same floor, which is nanotechnology, there is closer cooperation between research groups, and a better sharing of knowledge, something that, given the size of universities, is often more difficult to achieve. Besides, I see at INL a closer engagement with other dimensions of society, namely with the artistic world, which, in my opinion, is essential, providing scientific work with a totally different perspective. Deep down, art makes us a question, think, and many times interrogate the theoretical foundations that rule our daily lives and, in a way, isn’t it what science should do too?
What inspired you to pursue the development of new scientific and technological solutions based on renewable sources?
The key motivation behind my scientific work, and academic career, has always been sustainable development. I sincerely believe that society will not change its consumption habits or daily routines just for the sake of the environment. Even with all the warnings – mass migrations, intense hurricanes, severe and prolonged droughts, and the rising of global temperatures, among others, energy consumption has never stopped increasing, as well as industrial production.
With this premise, I believe that science must seek urgent solutions that guarantee current life quality standards, and also ensure those standards for future generations, while minimizing the impact on the environment as much as possible, both in terms of pollution and consumption of natural resources. I became particularly interested in the topic of energy production because social, economic and industrial development is based on it, simple as that. As the global energy demand is planned to continue increasing, it becomes imperative to raise the share of renewables in the energy mix.
At the same time, the recent brutal rise in energy prices has demonstrated how important energy resilience and independence are, especially for European countries, where imports of fossil fuels remain a heavy burden. Therefore, I believe that if we manage to produce and store energy in a clean and sustainable way, we will surely take a giant step towards sustainability.
Any advice for students considering a career in science?
Love what you do. I think that the great advantage of working in science is that you can really work on the edge of knowledge, either by developing new materials, products, or processes, which will allow the true exploration of creativity, proactivity and critical thinking.
Undoubtedly, these skills are amplified if you are passionate about what you do. Of course, commitment and dedication are essential, and scientific work implies rigour, ethics and a lot of effort, but when you enjoy your work, good results come naturally.
Indeed, in science, a bad result can be also a good result. By sharing knowledge on why a certain direction is not the way to go, we are preventing other scientists from making the same mistake, and thus contributing to the scientific community to advance as a whole. Therefore, the main advice I give to students that might consider a scientific career is to always keep an open mind, don’t be afraid of the unknown, and pursue what really intrigues you, what arouses your curiosity and your will to learn and discover more.
What sparked your interest in science communication? What made you so passionate about it?
For me, science only makes sense if it is closely linked to society. In other words, scientific advances must be at the service of a more advanced, more egalitarian and, above all, more humane society. This was clearly demonstrated during the Covid-19 pandemic, where science, in an unprecedented collaborative effort, played a crucial role in getting us back to normality so quickly. That’s why it doesn’t make sense to develop science in a language that only scientists understand, otherwise, it misses the whole fun of it.
And one of the reasons I love to participate in school visits at INL and to participate in multidisciplinary conferences is that I have the opportunity to communicate my work to a broader audience. I feel that this is the link that bonds my work with society in general and with future generations.
The message only gets through if we use simple and appealing language. Of course, I am not saying that anyone should be able to interpret complex formulas or calculations, but rather relevant scientific advances must be transposed to society in a way that everyone can easily understand. For example, one of the most prestigious scientific journals – Nature, only publishes succinct articles written in simple and clear language, one that any citizen can appreciate.
Leonardo da Vinci once said, “Simplicity is the ultimate level of sophistication”, and I totally agree.