CEITEC Nano, on his broad shoulders: A candid chat with the core-facility head Dr. Michal Urbánek

A physics-enthusiast right from his childhood, Michal Urbánek, the head of the CEITEC Nano core-facility, walks us through his research career, the unique research facility, and of course his interests outside science!


Please tell us about your scientific journey.

I am a physicist by training. I finished my Ph.D. when CEITEC was just an idea on paper. I was pondering about going abroad for my postdoctoral research, but right then Prof. Tomáš Šikola (my Ph.D. supervisor) offered me the opportunity to design and establish the Nanofabrication facility (popularly known as CEITEC Nano) of CEITEC BUT.

I grabbed it right away! Soon I started to negotiate and plan with the manufacturers to purchase necessary equipment and to establish the clean-room technology – a state of the art facility. Although there were initial technical hurdles, we managed to have the Nano facility running in 2015. Throughout my scientific journey, I got fascinated by different areas; during my Ph.D.

I studied optics, later on, my interest moved more into magnetism, especially magneto-optics. Presently, I am delving into the field of Nanomagnetism and magnetisation dynamics.

Now let us go back to your childhood. Did you have a childhood passion which helped you to move into science?

When I was a kid, I regularly attended radio-clubs, where I built my own radio-transmitters and receivers. As a child, I even made it to at that time very popular magazine Amatérské Radio (English: Amateur Radio), and recently, a Ph.D. student of mine showed me a photo of me in that magazine from the late ’80s (small boy soldering with big solder gun). That was a treat to look back at some pleasant childhood memories when I was an electronics-enthusiast. Later, I got interested in physics (astronomy), thanks to Dr. Grygar, a famous Czech physics popularizer. When I was applying for the university, I visited a laser-lab, which fueled my interest to work in optics.

CEITEC Nano is an essential player in the European material and nanoscience sphere. Could you tell us briefly, how are you serving the nano and material science world and how do you see the future?

This open access self-service facility is unique in the region. There are comparable facilities in the USA, the Netherlands, and Scandinavian countries; but here in Central Europe, the CEITEC Nano is one of a kind. Even in Austria, and to some extent in Germany, similar user facilities and advanced research centres are rare to find.

I hope we can serve the researchers to pursue their studies, and we are doing so! The unique character of CEITEC Nano lies in its possession of varied instruments in single laboratory space, so you can run your fabrication and downstream measurements at the same spot. The cost to purchase and maintain these equipment are colossal, which is not always feasible for a single research group or even company to afford. As a solution, CEITEC Nano concentrates all necessary technology and offers access to all researchers, from academia and industry as well.

My responsibility at CEITEC Nano is to help stitch together the whole facility, and most of the time I am playing the role of a manager. Nevertheless, having a matching research background helps me to imagine and design the facility in a way a researcher would need; I have lived in their shoes! And I still work on research projects and writing articles whenever I have a bit of free time, like on weekends or in the afternoons.



Can you tell us a few unique defining characters of this facility?

We have a self-service food-shop, a table-tennis board, a foosball table, and exclusively a small gym (Nano Gym) where the researchers can perform their daily workout. My aim is to establish a work environment where the researchers are not compelled to work!

We have an open-door user-office, where the facility-users can come with their problems to be solved ASAP, a unique attribute comparable to, for example, the Synchrotron facility in Grenoble.

Brno is the hub of electron microscopy. How do you see the future and the role of CEITEC Nano in it? CEITEC BUT has an impressive history of academia-industry cooperations. How do you see it?

We already have fruitful collaborations with the industrial partners, not only with the electron microscopy manufacturers but the industry in general. Previously, the high-tech industry in the region was ahead of universities, in terms of expertise and technology; but the establishment of CEITEC Nano has changed the scenario. CEITEC Nano can now make the industrial partners aware of its advanced technologies and educate them about the nitty-gritty.

CEITEC Nano is also troubleshooting problems of many industrial allies. This is a huge leap from the past, and I can say CEITEC Nano is in many areas ahead of the commercial counterparts and can offer them services which were previously not available in this region.

But, the maintenance of the facility requires loads of resources, and I am gratified that the recent systematic programs in the Czech Republic are financially backing the research infrastructures like CEITEC Nano.

Do you believe that science should not stay only within the boundaries of scientific journals, but also reach to common people? Do you believe in a general form of science dissemination?

Yes, of course! Me and CEITEC Nano as the research infrastructure believe in science dissemination to a broader population.

The corridors of the facility are designed in a way which could enable science-excursions for the public. We routinely organise such excursions during our open-days, when anyone can spend some time at the facility and see what we are doing!

Not only the general public but significantly, scientists from other disciplines can experience the work of CEITEC Nano during these excursions.

What is your favorite leisure-time activity?

I was doing semi-professional triathlons for almost 20 years. I had to stop 3 years back due to some health issues, actually caused by triathlons!

But now I have moved to bicycles completely. I own 8 bicycles, so I am quite well equipped for all kinds of disciplines and weather conditions!

I enjoy riding bikes when I am away from work. All members of my family also love bicycling and we often have biking-trips. 


Any messages and tips for the scientists in the making?

Now we are in a comfortable situation when standard tools and technologies are easily affordable; which was not the case during my Ph.D. days. 

People were used to improvising quite a lot, which at that point was necessary because of meager money in research. However, nowadays, I think it is best just to buy necessary things and concentrate on the real contribution to science. You do not need to develop, for instance, a manipulator, you can simply purchase it and solve real scientific questions.

I strongly believe and try to tell the Ph.D. students or junior researchers that many-a-times developing something, which already exists and does its job perfectly, is a waste of money and time. It could be interesting, but, it is just a hobby, not science!

In this regard, the CEITEC Nano facility is playing an important role! We are offering the scientists our professional service which takes care of maintaining, updating, and troubleshooting the required technology so that the users can devote their precious time only to solve their scientific questions without any frustrating distractions. And I am certain, we will keep serving the scientific world in the same way.

Interview and editing by Somsuvro Basu

Photography by Emil Gallík 

Publication date: 29.03.2019