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The Warsaw Voice » Other » December 2, 2009
Foundation For Polish Science
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December 2, 2009   
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This year, the Foundation for Polish Science has provided young scientists with 11 grants each with a value of 3,000 to 6,000 euros per month. The money is for long-term research visits to prestigious scientific centers. The FNP has also offered 16 grants for scientists returning from prolonged stays at research centers in countries such as the United States, Britain, Belgium, France, Italy, Greece, Canada and Switzerland. In this year's program, these two-year grants amount to zl.36,000 per year in the stipend part and zl.46,000 per year in the research project part. They will be supplemented with money the FNP receives from the 1-percent tax donation system.

A wide range of grant programs are available to outstanding scientists in Poland to help them develop their talent and upgrade their research equipment.

The Foundation for Polish Science, a self-financing nongovernmental organization that was established in 1991 to support the country's scientific community, has launched a number of programs to support young scientists and their mentors.

The Start bursary program is one of the foundation's key projects for young scientists who can boast the biggest successes in research.

The Start bursaries, awarded since 1993, are designed to motivate young Polish researchers to remain and develop further in the field of science.

Young people up to the age of 30 years-or 32 in the case of those who have small children and have taken child-care leave-can apply for the Start bursaries if they are either employees or Ph.D. student researchers in research institutions and have had their work published in renowned scientific periodicals. Start bursaries are financed from funds received by the foundation from the privatization of state-owned enterprises.

The foundation's key program is Kolumb (Columbus), which helps young Ph.D. graduates gain experience in scientific work abroad. Kolumb bursaries facilitate stays in the best scientific centers in the world for those people who have not yet worked on a long-term basis abroad.

Mindful of the best scientists who intend to develop their careers in Poland, the foundation has launched several international Ph.D. programs such as Team and Welcome, which are financed from European Union structural funds. These two programs are designed to provide Polish scientists with research conditions similar to those offered by foreign universities. Team and Welcome bursaries fund remuneration, research and collaboration with the best scientists and research centers in the world.

Seasoned scientists are eligible for assistance under the Mistrz (Master) program that each year awards grants to professors. Each professor can take some of the funds for themselves and allocate the rest as grants for their coworkers and students and to finance participation in scientific conferences or new equipment.

The foundation's best known program involves the "Polish Nobel" awards for outstanding scientists for their achievements and discoveries during the last four years.

Yet another award is the Copernicus Polish-German Science Award, a joint initiative between the Foundation for Polish Science and Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, Germany's central public funding organization for academic research.

"The foundation strives to tailor its programs to the requirements of the Polish scientific community," says Magdalena Kowalczyk, from the Foundation for Polish Science's information and promotion department. "International collaboration and stays in research centers abroad are currently the basis of career development for every scientist. This is why the foundation aids Polish academics with secondments to scientific institutions abroad. At the same time, it tries to ensure that the best young scientists want to return to Poland."

An expert in the optics of ultra-short laser pulses, Wasylczyk went to Oxford directly after obtaining his doctoral degree. While in Britain, he joined a group of researchers supervised by Prof. Ian Walmsley to conduct research on new methods to measure ultra-short laser pulses.

Before he went to Britain, Wasylczyk was a member of a research group led by Prof. Czesław Radzewicz at the Institute of Experimental Physics in Warsaw. The group worked under the guidance of Oxford University's Walmsley.

According to Wasylczyk, the research groups in both Oxford and Warsaw are organized in a similar fashion, centering around professors who are "excellent experimenters." The professors spend most of their time pursuing administrative and organizational routines and they also coordinate the work of their groups and determine research objectives, Wasylczyk says. Each group includes several assistant professors, or post-docs-two in Warsaw and five in Oxford-who manage individual research projects. Then, there are graduate and postgraduate as well as senior-year students, Wasylczyk says. In both Oxford and Warsaw, research is mostly funded using long-term grants that are spent on equipment, day-to-day research work and salaries. The only difference is that in Poland pay for the researchers constitutes a small part of the grants, Wasylczyk says.

Spider-Man
While at Oxford, Wasylczyk says he got to watch ultra-fast processes in molecules. He sought parameters for inducing laser pulses to cause two-atom potassium molecules vibrate the longest, that is put them in a state where they interact with their environment as little as possible.

Ten years ago, Walmsley proposed using spectral interference where spectroscopic techniques had been previously used to achieve that effect. Such was the beginning of SPIDER, short for Spectral Interferometry for Direct E-field Reconstruction. Initially, SPIDER was a complex system with many degrees of freedom, Wasylczyk says. He and a few other Polish researchers teamed up with Simon-Pierre Gorza from Université Libre de Brussels and Alex Radunski from the University of Rochester to use certain properties of non-linear crystals, to radically simplify the SPIDER structure. The time spent in Britain resulted in a prototype, miniature LX-SPIDER that the APE company in Berlin has just introduced to the market.

Asked about the method, Wasylczyk says, "Imagine a light beam shining through a plate made of transparent material, such as ordinary glass, several centimeters thick. For light emitted by sources like a flashlight or a commercially available laser pointer, nothing special happens. The beam passes through the plate and only a small part of the light reflects from the glass surface. Things look totally different when high-intensity light is used. The momentary power of laser pulses used in experiments can reach tens of gigawatts (GW). In comparison, the peak power of Poland's largest power plant in Bełchatów is around 4 GW. The secret behind obtaining such enormous power from a laser system that fits on a single lab table and takes electricity from an ordinary socket is that researchers can generate extremely short laser pulses lasting for a fraction of one-millionth of a second. Such extreme conditions open the gate to the realm of nonlinear optics, Wasylczyk says.

Until the invention of the laser, optical experiments could only make use of linear phenomena where the response of the medium through which light passed was proportional to the amount of light. When the strength of the electrical field of a light wave becomes comparable to fields that bind electrons in atoms, matter begins to act differently than in normal conditions, Wasylczyk says. In nonlinear optics, the response, such as deflection of a bound electron, or medium polarization, may depend on the second, third and even higher powers of the light's electrical field.

Laser amplifiers used to generate ultra-short pulses in high-power lasers will remain confined to labs for long, if not forever, Wasylczyk says. For the time being, he adds, the systems are so complex that it takes a lot of know-how and practice to just start them up. One also needs to have air-conditioned rooms with systems capable of purifying the air and precisely adjusting the temperature. Green laser pointers are among the devices that rely on nonlinear frequency conversion, Wasylczyk says.

Ever shorter laser pulses
In a string of experiments carried out under the supervision of Prof. Radzewicz, Wasylczyk observed an extraordinarily wide range of phenomena. It turns out that under appropriate conditions, it is possible to split a laser pulse into two or more parts, produce new frequencies (colors of light) and alter the shape of the laser beam, Wasylczyk says.

In order to precisely measure ultra-short laser pulses before and after a beam passes through material, Wasylczyk turned his attention to techniques used to measure such pulses. The techniques constitute a vast branch of optics in their own right. The result were several innovative techniques and devices enabling precise description of laser pulses.

Watching processes that occur in a certain time frame requires measurement techniques with a time resolution comparable and preferably finer than that of the studied time frame, Wasylczyk says. For example, a photograph of a bursting balloon taken at a shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second will provide little data about the bursting process and will likely be blurred, with all the phases rolled into a single image. Currently obtained laser pulses are short enough to let researchers see, for the first time, processes that occur on the molecular scale in real time, including vibrations inside molecules and the formation and decomposition of molecules. To gain insight into atoms, even shorter pulses will be necessary, Wasylczyk says. All the emerging techniques to produce such pulses rely on nonlinear processes and take profound knowledge of the electric field of light pulses that trigger the processes.
Piotr Bartosz
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