Professor Marcela Bilek
When physicists talk of designing custom surfaces, it has nothing to do with floor tiles or bench tops. In the case of Marcela Bilek, it relates to functional coatings that may one day be used in artificial hearts or improving solar cells.
Her research as an Australian Federation Fellow at the University’s School of Physics finds new uses for existing materials by modifying their surfaces. Her work looks at the bonding of ions from plasmas, or electrically charged gases, to various materials, modifying the surfaces to improve their performance in applications ranging from high temperature machining tools to biosensors.
Professor Bilek has won international recognition for developing a 3D computer model of the complex flow processes in an aluminium reduction cell. Created while working with an Australian company after graduating with a BSc (Hons) from the University of Sydney in 1991, the model achieved huge savings in a research field where each test cell costs millions of dollars to build.
She then undertook a doctorate at Cambridge, where she also completed a research fellowship developing plasma-based technologies. She made a further breakthrough developing a model to predict the transport of cathodic arc plasma through magnetic filters.
Working with other research institutions and industry, Professor Bilek became aware of communication frustrations on both sides, so in 1999 she enrolled in a part-time MBA through the US Rochester Institute of Technology College of Business. She graduated the following year with a perfect score.
When Professor Bilek returned to Sydney in 2000, she became the second youngest professor appointed to the School of Physics and the school’s first female professor. She is now working to create super-adhesive and super-tough nanolaminate materials that provide abalone shell-like protection, and surfaces that bind bioactive molecules such as proteins, for medical diagnostic devices.
Her awards include the Prime Minister’s prize for Physical Scientist of the Year in 2002.