Meet our Plenary Speakers Vol I: Prof. Dr. Salvador Pané i Vidal

Prof. Dr. Salvador Pané i Vidal is one of our plenary speakers at IEEE-NANO2024. He is a Professor of Materials for Robotics at the Institute of Robotics and Intelligent Systems (IRIS) at ETH Zürich as well as Co-Director of the Multi-Scale Robotics Lab at the same university. He is a leading researcher in the field of micro/nano robots, having authored and co-authored more than 200 peer-reviewed publications and having been awarded several competitive grants, including the prestigious Starting and Consolidator grants from the European Research Council. In this interview, performed by IEEE-NANO2024 Publicity Committee member Dr. Luiz Felipe Aguinsky from the Integrated Systems Laboratory (IIS) of ETH Zürich, Prof. Pané presents his career path and provides powerful insights into how Young Professionals can leverage their sense of curiosity and exploration to benefit their careers.

Q: Welcome Professor Pané to this interview for the IEEE-NANO2024 conference. Could you start by telling us in your own words about your career path, how your interests have evolved?

I studied chemistry at the University of Barcelona, followed by a Master in electrochemistry, in which I was focusing on fabricating magnetic materials for different applications, especially in the area of magnetoresistance and hard magnets. Then the Catalan government provided the opportunity for researchers to visit a lab. I am a bit adventurous, so I decided to apply and I got it. So then I landed at ETH Zürich, where I discovered that I could use my knowledge in materials and fabrication for manufacturing what we call micro/nanorobots, which are tiny devices for minimally invasive medicine applications such as targeted drug delivery.

For several years I was a postdoc, then I became a senior researcher. What actually made a big change for me was receiving the ERC Starting Grant as well as the ERC Consolidator Grant, which allowed me to become a professor at this institute at ETH.

Q: Picking up some threads from your research career and starting from the beginning, what is the main lesson learned from your PhD, and what would you do differently if you could start over?

I would not change anything essential from my PhD. What I would actually recommend to a PhD student is that they should think out of the box. Sometimes you have some supervisors who tell you maybe you should do this and that. But if you have an idea and you are convinced, you should try it. You should never be the one saying “oh, that’s too complicated, that’s not going to work”. I actually dislike these words. So I usually try and see if it is feasible. And then I push it. So far, it worked for me 90% of the time.

Q: So it really seems that there is this sense of curiosity and exploration that you try to encourage in your students. Can you provide an example from your own work of how you manage to explore different research paths?

For instance, I was convinced that using magnetoelectric materials, which are materials that become electrically polarized when you apply magnetic fields, could be used to stimulate cells or even make them differentiate. I wrote this ERC Starting Grant application based on this and, to be honest, I did not have preliminary results. But I had some indications that this would work, and indeed it works. Now, there are many people working on this topic.

Q: One interesting question that we are recently facing is this opportunity, or challenge, of large language models or other AI models. In a sense, they can be a partner to generate new ideas, but can also pose some challenges. Do you think there are helpful tools or just a fad that will pass by?

I think they are helpful tools. Any tool has its pros and cons, like perhaps when the calculator was invented, people thought that we would lose our ability to sum or to multiply. But that was not the case. I think these tools can help you in being more effective and faster. You can use AI to screen conditions of materials based on preliminary results so that you do not have to do an Eddisonian work on experiments, that is to do many, many experiments. For instance, AI can help in this. So I am not against it, but of course I always say the same with every tool. You should use it responsibly. You can use a laser to cut material and you can use a laser to harm a person. So, of course, everything has its negative side and positive side. It depends on us researchers and engineers to be responsible when using these tools.

Q: To finalize, what are your expectations regarding IEEE-NANO2024? Could you give a teaser about what you will be presenting in your plenary talk?

I am very excited because nanotechnology is in fact what I am working on. There are a lot of advances related to micromanufacturing, which is my passion, and this conference has a wealth of talks on this topic. I am going to talk about how to deliver electric fields wirelessly with micro/nano robots for cell stimulation and differentiation.

Thank you very much for your time Professor Pané. See you again this summer in Gijón!