An interview with Ana Helman on the connections and collaborations at the core of the Graphene Flagship
Ana Helman – currently the Managing Director of the European Centre for Quantum Sciences at the University of Strasbourg in France – served for nine years as the European Alignment Officer for the Graphene Flagship. Working as part of the Management Work Package at the European Science Foundation (ESF), Helman oversaw coordination actions between the EU, various national programmes and international collaborations with countries such as USA, South Korea, Japan, China and Australia.
We sat down with her to talk about her journey with the Graphene Flagship, the various milestones achieved and her aspirations for graphene and the project.
Launching the Graphene Flagship
Ana Helman’s journey with the project began when Graphene Flagship Director Jari Kinaret approached her in 2010 with the initial idea for the Flagship. At that time, she was the programme coordinator at the European Science Foundation, in charge of managing the collaborative EUROCORES research programme on graphene, called EuroGraphene.
At that time EuroGraphene was already supported by 15 national funding agencies across Europe. A network of funders had been established, and they were able tap into this network. Helman was invited to join EuroGraphene’s first launch meeting at the University of Strasbourg. The discussions and brainstorming sessions that transpired in this first meeting led to ideas on how to bring together the graphene community. A proposal for the Graphene Flagship pilot was then submitted by a consortium of nine partners in response to a call by the European Commission (EC). The proposal was approved and funding for a Coordination and Support Action was obtained. Helman had two main responsibilities. Firstly, to provide an interface between the national funders and the research community. And secondly, to identify the main initiatives at the national level where they could build a Europe-wide network of researchers and organisation. This was a perfect role for her given her varied experiences in both academia and industry. It was through these interactions that the Graphene Flagship was born.
The plan was for the funding from the European Commission to be integrated with contributions from the EU Member States. This was a new concept. Consequently, there were multiple meetings and discussions to ensure both coherence and flexibility to facilitate research in a rapidly evolving ecosystem. It was Helman’s role to work with the stakeholders – national funders, the EC and Graphene Flagship Management – to create a succinct framework to allow them to come together.
The FLAG-ERA NET was also established in the initial phase of the Flagship programme to bring together multiple national and regional funding agencies to support the two Flagships: the Graphene Flagship and the Human Brain Project. They agreed to regularly launch dedicated calls for funding in synergy with the Flagships. This has been crucial to keeping the dialogue between the EC and nationally funded parts of the Flagships alive. Additionally, Helman and her team introduced the possibility for individual organisations to join the Graphene Flagship as Associated Members. Her work here proved extremely successful for attracting companies, and in particular small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) under the Flagship umbrella. This further assimilated the synergy between academia and industry.
Connecting with research and industry globally
Multiple countries globally were also investing and launching programmes on graphene research around the same period. Hence the idea of a large-scale European initiative on graphene attracted a lot of interest and was very well received by the international research community. These constellations of graphene research clearly put graphene on the map as a new and important emerging technology. This consequently gave the Graphene Flagship strong international visibility.
International visibility expanded collaborations between researchers in Europe and the rest of the world. Regular International Workshops were established to deepen research and further identify promising avenues for research and collaborations. Helman and her team at ESF, played an integral role in providing organisational support for these workshops and establishing links with a growing number of countries.
When asked about her accomplishments, Helman attributed the success of the Graphene Flagship to the long-term perspective – which sets it apart from typical three-year EC-funded research initiatives – that drove invaluable research and communication in this area. This has allowed the Graphene Flagship to build a strong and resilient community that has and will continue to develop activities and facilitate research which will result in strong and important impact over time. She also credits the Graphene Flagship’s success to great teamwork, which sometimes included long but always constructive discussions between the various subgroups within the project – management, administration and scientific divisions. This has been integral to overcoming varied challenges.
When asked about her thoughts on the Graphene Flagship’s future, she explains that the first ten years of work through research and implementation have now started to bear fruit. Hence it would be interesting and important to have these findings assessed and measured independently. (See page 4 for preliminary data from one such assessment.) She is also extremely grateful for the opportunities that the Graphene Flagship has afforded her. She adds that having such a large community working together towards common objectives can only be beneficial as it accelerates the scientific and technological advances in a quite spectacular way. Graphene and related materials and technologies are now branching out to many different application areas. And the research, industry and funding communities are responding accordingly. She says it will be exciting to see the new research and findings that will come out of these collaborations ten years on.
On a personal level, Helman emphasises and celebrates the lifelong impacts and mobility opportunities that have arisen from the various interactions between junior and established researchers that the Graphene Flagship has facilitated. She herself is one such beneficiary. She reiterates that she will definitely use the many skills and knowledge attained over the past ten years at the Graphene Flagship in her new role as the Managing Director of the European Centre for Quantum Sciences at the University of Strasbourg in France. And we wish her all the best in her future endeavours.