A PhD at Twenty-One, the World at Twenty-Five?
by Marcia Goodrich
Katerina Aifantis ’01 is accustomed to being the youngest in the room.
At the age of sixteen, the Houghton High School student sweet-talked her principal into letting her take courses at Michigan Tech, where she promptly aced calculus and chemistry.
“She just beat everyone in the class,” remembers Associate Professor Paul Charlesworth. “She’s one of the finest students to ever take my general chemistry course.”
The next year, Aifantis went hat in hand to Stephen Hackney, a professor of materials science and engineering, and asked to work with him on his applied elasticity research. He hesitated, Hackney says, until “it became clear that her math skills far exceeded those of many graduate students.”
Thus it came to pass that, at an age when many teens would be obsessed with prom dresses or hockey, Aifantis was hip-deep in the micromechanics of lithium-ion battery electrode materials design. With the blessing of Houghton High administrators and the devotion of her mom, who doubled as taxi driver and cheerleader as her daughter juggled college and high school classes, Aifantis earned high school credit while attending Michigan Tech. By the age of nineteen, she had fulfilled the requirements for a BS in Engineering with a minor in mathematics and graduated (are you surprised?) summa cum laude.
This might be a good time to pause in our litany of Aifantis’s achievements and acknowledge her luminous intellect, not to mention a work ethic that could slap together a couple of Egyptian pyramids in a fortnight. These qualities alone, however, might not have been enough to make Aifantis, now twenty-five, the youngest recipient of a 1.1-million-euro Starting Independent Researcher Grant.
Her proposal, “Probing the Micro/Nano Transition: Theory and Experiments, Simulation and Applications,” was among nine thousand received by the European Research Council from researchers on the cusp of their careers. Just three hundred were funded.
Making it into this elite group is more than a matter of brains.
“She absolutely loves what she’s doing, and that’s a big part of her success,” says Hackney.
Also driving Aifantis is a voracious curiosity she’s exhibited since girlhood, when she pestered her father, Elias Aifantis, to explain his work. “He would never tell me,” she sighs. “He kept saying he would when I was older, but he never did. That’s why I wanted a PhD, I wanted to know what my dad was doing.”
The elder Aifantis is a distinguished research professor in the College of Engineering and spends most of his time at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, in Greece. He gained international recognition in the materials science community for his theory of gradient plasticity, a branch of mechanics sufficiently complex that its details will be left to the reader’s imagination.
But before Katerina Aifantis could learn her father’s secrets, she had to cross the Atlantic, courtesy of a National Science Foundation fellowship.
“When I went to Cambridge for my PhD, they were working on the theory that my dad started,” she recalls. To her delight, her advisor, the renowned mathematician John Willis, was more than happy to explain gradient plasticity. But for Aifantis, the realization of this childhood dream turned out to be just another spark in a blazing academic career that was turning white hot.
“I worked so hard at Cambridge that I practically had my thesis done in a year,” she says. However, Cambridge required that she spend a minimum of three years earning a doctorate, and no amount of the cajoling that had worked so well in America could bend that rule.
This time, faced with Cambridge’s equivalent of the Maginot Line, Aifantis made like a tank and drove around it. In 2004 she enrolled at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, which does not place a time minimum on PhD completion, under the supervision of well-known materials scientist Jeff De Hosson. On April 18, 2005, she defended her thesis in the oldest building in a very old city. Wearing a black skirt and sweater purchased for the ceremony, she walked down the center aisle of a fourteenth-century stone edifice, flanked by two lantern bearers and led by a page who presented her thesis to twelve black-robed professors.
“I was planning on going to my defense in jeans, not knowing how formal the ceremony is,” she confides. “When I found out, I worried more about what I was going to wear than what I was going to say.”
Her self-assurance was well founded. The twenty-one-year-old Aifantis walked away from her defense the youngest person ever to earn a PhD in the Netherlands.
Cool. Now what?
She yearned to do college research,
but nowhere is there a big market for
twenty-one-year-old professors. So Aifantis knocked around labs in Greece, the UK, France, and Russia before she threw her hat in the ring for that European Research Council grant.
Calculating the odds of winning and concluding “What are the chances?” she accepted a postdoctoral fellowship in applied physics at Harvard and settled down to research nanoelectronic systems. Then early this year, her ship came in: Aifantis got her grant. In April, she returned to Greece to begin her research.
Harvard has been fine, really, Aifantis says, “but now the happy part begins.”
With her 1.1-million euros (about $1.8-million), she will explore the interfaces between different materials, including bone and metal, which has major applications in orthopedic surgery. Aifantis will also continue work she began with Hackney on the design of lithium ion batteries, with the aim of someday implanting them in the brains of Parkinson’s patients “to make their lives easier.” She can’t wait.
So much to learn, so little time. At least she’s getting an early start.