Elia Psillakis, professor of the School of Chemical and Environmental Engineering of the Technical University of Crete, was ranked among the top 100 Analytical Chemistry scientists in the world, by "The Analytical Scientist" magazine. With endurance and boldness the young chemist reached the top of her field and gained international recognition.  

By Mia Kollia
Translated by Alexandros Theodoropoulos
#science #chemistry #research

Elia Psillakis has contributed greatly to the scientific community. Right now she’s the head of a scientific team of the European Chemical Society that very quickly managed to create a global network of 700 members from 53 countries. Elia is everywhere and accomplishes impossible goals with persistence and fortitude. After working abroad and as Greece couldn’t offer what she wanted to study, she found a new research field according to the infrastructure she had access to in Crete, which was close to what she had already done in order to take advantage of the experience and knowledge she had acquired.

"The hard part was that I was unknown. I hadn’t worked with well-known professors in the field, so no one knew me. The Technical University of Crete was also a new Institution with no tradition in what I wanted to do. Very quickly I realised that under these conditions and in order to quickly stand out, I had to take a big risk and do what we call disruptive research. It turned out to be successful.  

I began to define new areas of research, as opposed to simply advancing existing knowledge, I started talking about things that others couldn’t understand at first, connecting Analytical Chemistry with Engineering and other sciences. Over time, my work acquired a distinct identity and managed to explore and define new territories. For many years, I partnered almost exclusively with international groups to build my network."

- How important was the family environment in which you grew up and how did it influence your journey? Was there any family background or did you just have a childhood love for chemistry? How has your love for chemistry evolved over the years?

Ever since I can remember myself I’ve always wanted to be a chemist. My father first mentioned it to me, as it happens usually. He had a plastic pipe industry and chemistry was very involved. Chemistry is about an imaginary microcosm and its teaching is peculiar. You have to find someone with a great love for the subject to help you form this microcosm in your mind early on.

I was really lucky to have a great Chemistry Teacher in high school, Mr. Theodoros Xenakis, who not only helped me assemble this world in my mind, but also helped me to understand the laws that govern it. As I progressed, and as the world of Chemistry unfolded in greater detail before me, I realised that there isn't always a clear line between sciences. Chemistry, Physics and Engineering sciences are interrelated and Mathematics is their basis. This gave me great freedom of thought and a myriad of tools to explore new areas.

- How much dedication and effort is needed for further development?

It depends on how big the development we seek is and how fast we want it. For big and fast steps, devotion is a must. You have to be constantly focused on your goals, ignore the obstacles, accept the "ups and downs" of the route and not rest on unimportant intermediate victories. In short, no matter what is going on around you, you should never miss the forest for the trees. 

- What does it take to make one's dreams come true? What are your current dreams?  

I knew every time that it takes a lot of hard work, discipline, persistence, patience, flexibility and above all concentration on your goal in order to make dreams come true. In research, intelligence and talent are not the only prerequisites for achieving your goals and consequently your dreams. The research community is made up of intelligent people, but those who stand out and make a difference certainly combine many of the above characteristics. My current goals are many but small ones and I hope they will help me slowly realise my dreams which are actually my activities. I hope that both my research and non-research activities will help future generations and remain relevant for many years to come.

- How did you manage recognition, reputation and acceptance? How many other things are you proud of?

On a personal level I manage recognition and acceptance carefully and I never rest. After a distinction I am certainly happy but I automatically try to plan my next steps. The higher you rise, the greater are your responsibilities towards your community. As you progress, competition is also tougher and the battles are longer. You must always be ready. But I use my recognition as much as I can to create opportunities for the younger members of our community from all over the world. Through partnerships I give them the lead and put them in charge of teams to help them gain the recognition they deserve as quickly as possible.

Like all colleagues, I am very proud of some of my research publications that have managed to give new directions and insights in the field. But I won’t hide that I also feel very proud to be the portrait of Greece in the international groups I am involved with. I will dare to admit that I feel very proud that my name has been associated with my city, Chania. 

- How do you handle potential setbacks?

Failures in every course aren’t contingent but given. In order to stand out you have to overcome the fear of failure. I had a series of small and big failures that I refer to very often since I almost always found a way to turn them into successes. It definitely needs patience and that’s a big challenge in general, but these experiences are what made me and developed me into being a better scientist and a better person.  

- What are the secrets of managing groups and people?

The community I belong to is defined by constant instability and complex working relationships between people. I have learned two things along the way; the first is that I shouldn’t take anything personally. Some people of a given nationality for example function a certain way, simply because it’s their way of surviving, the way of doing things. There is nothing personal. The second thing I learned is to be patient. When you work with principles and morals, whatever attack you receive, whatever injustice you feel, whatever obstacles may stand in your way, sooner or later you will be vindicated. You just have to wait.

- Are there any beacons of inspiration in your life? Like people, places, circumstances?

Circumstances and places are neither limiting nor helpful to me. I've always been very flexible and adaptable regarding them. But there are many people who are beacons of inspiration in my life, maybe because I have made several acquaintances and friends in many countries on my way or because quite simply I have always been looking for the transfer of knowledge and experience. Interacting with charismatic people provides you with invaluable intellectual and emotional wealth and gives you the strength to carry on.

On the other hand, there are people who, through the obstacles that are created, become beacons in your life because they signal your own changes. 

In Greece, I could single out my friendship with Kostas Sinolakis who helped me understand the nature of academia. Kostas Sinolakis always believed in my potential and was always by my side in the most difficult moments of my journey. Dionysis Tsichritzis generously taught me the secrets of high-level administration as well as the strategy of a course and Vassilis Digalakis created the conditions for me to become the first female Deputy Rector of the Technical University of Crete at a relatively young age.