Modernity Hand in Hand with Tradition
August 1, 2014
Professor Tadeusz Słomka, rector of the AGH University of Science and Technology in Krakow, talks to Teresa Bętkowska.
Surveys show that 16 percent of high school graduates in Poland choose to pursue studies at technical universities. Many of them choose the AGH University of Science and Technology. According to labor market studies, graduates from your university do not have to worry about their professional future. Is that the case?
Last year, only 9 percent of our graduates did not take up work within six months of graduation. This is a good result, proving that the AGH University of Science and Technology – modern, renowned, and with great prospects for the future – is highly rated by companies and businesspeople in Poland and abroad, also in terms of training highly qualified engineers. One hundred percent of computer scientists, including those who graduate in applied computer science [from the AGH UST], find employment. And qualified mechanics, mechatronics, telecommunications professionals, and experts on telemedicine, automation, robotics, technical physics, biomaterials, and so on have no problem in finding a job in their line of expertise. The AGH UST’s 16 faculties currently provide training to 37,000 students in 57 majors.
Is the university attached to its traditions?
Last year, the AGH UST marked 100 years since it was established as an Academy of Mining. In this sense, we are a successor to the Academic School of Mining that was founded by [reformer and educator] Stanisław Staszic [a leading figure in the Polish Enlightenment] in Kielce in 1816. Today the AGH UST is a university that focuses on modern technology. It conducts innovative scientific research in important branches of the economy. Thus, apart from offering the traditional fields of education, we are launching new courses, usually one or two a year. The university traditionally put an emphasis on courses linked to mining and this can still be seen to an extent today.
Research areas such as mining technology, ways of obtaining and using energy resources as well as geotechnology are still very much relevant research topics today. The AGH UST’s opinion also counts when it comes to Polish mines. We conduct expert studies and provide advice to coal mines. For example, we are trying to promote technology for the production of gas from coal. We have developed a modern method for the gasification of coal and lignite. Mining is experiencing a renaissance these days. That’s why there’s no lack of students at our Faculty of Mining and Geoengineering. What’s more, 80 percent of the graduates from this department immediately take up work compatible with their education. Professionals with expertise and certifications in mining are also needed for projects such as the construction of a tunnel, subway, highway or foundations and garages under skyscrapers.
Does the university still maintain its other traditional focus – the steel industry?
Steel production may not be a top priority in the modern economy, but advanced technology and modern materials for metallurgy are essential. Industries such as aerospace and the automotive sector need alloys and lightweight, durable composites. This is where materials engineering comes into its own. We have also taken an interest in precious steel, which normally attracts too little attention. The AGH UST is working with Polish steel mills to change this state of affairs. There are also other metals, such as copper, zinc, lead, and silver, that are produced in Poland, and it’s difficult to imagine how these industries could develop without our graduates. We effectively work together with the [mining and metallurgical enterprise] Zakłady Górniczo-Hutnicze Bolesław and [copper giant] KGHM Polska MiedĽ.
Is shale gas extraction a challenge for the AGH UST Faculty of Drilling, Oil and Gas?
The AGH UST is the only university in Poland to provide training to professionals dealing with drilling for and extracting shale gas. This training has been available since 2008 on our oil and gas engineering course. We have already produced the first graduates who have started their professional careers.
The AGH UST offers the most fully developed training in biomedical engineering among Polish universities. Interdisciplinary research in the field of technical support for medicine, biomechanics and biomaterials began at the AGH UST in 1973. The first biomedical engineering course at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Automatics, Computer Science and Electronics was the work of a former rector, Professor Ryszard Tadeusiewicz. Later, several other faculties also took up engineering biomechanics and studies involving biocompatible materials used in medical implants, etc.
What about environmental issues? Is environmental protection among the university’s interests as well?
The large number of research papers [concerned with environmental protection] is the answer to this question. For example, we research mineral resources and fresh and mineral groundwaters. We deal with renewable energy sources (geothermal energy). We solve problems related to the country’s energy resources – in most cases, in cooperation with the government administration and local authorities in Poland, the European Union, industry and nongovernmental institutions.
Launching new fields of study and new courses, adapting research topics to the needs of the market – how does this translate into collaboration with industry?
Last year the AGH UST had 2,300 agreements with business partners, including 200 with international ones. We carry out research based on grants from the National Centre for Research and Development (NCBR), the National Science Centre, the EU and hundreds of Polish and foreign companies. Almost 2,000 specialists from various fields of science are involved, including 570 with professorial titles or doctoral degrees. Every year, the university obtains more than 100 patents and sells more than 40 licenses. Our projects are increasingly getting a thumbs-up from the European Patent Office. We also promote ourselves by organizing or co-organizing around 300 specialized conferences a year. In 2007 we set up a Technology Transfer Centre that aims to create mechanisms to facilitate contacts with the business community and the economy. It also deals with intellectual property protection, including formal and legal support and professional support for innovation, and drawing up patent applications. The AGH-UNESCO Centre of International Promotion of Technology and Education, the first centre in Poland of its kind, is working well under the auspices of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The centre seeks to inspire and coordinate good engineering practices and provide an international education at the university level in the field of technical sciences.
The university has no qualms about going commercial with its research results and many of your professors have become businessmen. Can you tell us more?
The university owns a special-purpose company called Krakow Centre of Innovative Technologies INNOAGH), which was established 14 years ago. The company aims to create spin-off companies run by professors. We also have our Academic Business Incubator – an independent non-faculty unit operating in the form of a non-profit organization. Its mission is to support students, Ph.D. students (around 1,000 of them), graduates and academic staff in establishing and running their own businesses.
Which of the AGH UST’s inventions have proved a commercial hit?
There’s a long list. So I will only mention one of our latest inventions – officially approved on June 5 – that can transform the lives of blind people. Professor Władysław D±browski and Paweł Hottowy, Ph.D., along with teams of researchers from Stanford University and the University of California, have artificially generated, in the retina of an eye damaged by disease, signals identical to those that the retina sends to the brain when it conveys information about what the eyes see. They opened the way for the development of an implant that will provide blind people with artificial vision of high quality.
We have come up with many great inventions in biomedicine, electronics, mechatronics, materials science and other disciplines. Every year, several of these meet top world standards.
Speaking about research, your university has a long list of research facilities, including laboratories and top-caliber equipment.
The university has extensive infrastructure: hundreds of lecture halls and classrooms, 680 laboratories, and 40 conference rooms. These facilities are constantly being modernized and expanded. In 2012, we opened a new IT Centre of Computer Science as well as a Centre of Ceramics, and an Academic Centre for Materials and nanotechnology. Next year construction will end on a 16,000-square meter Centre of Energetic, the largest facility of its kind in Poland, and perhaps in all of Europe. It will house 40 all-round laboratories. Scientists from all over the world will be able to work there. We have excellent cooperation with partners in Japan, the United States, United Kingdom and many other countries. We will make available half of the laboratories for research along commercial lines.
The university is home to the AGH UST Academic Computer Centre Cyfronet equipped with supercomputers, among them the Zeus, one of the top 100 most powerful computers in the world. As a result, the AGH UST has excellent programmers, thanks to whom we can solve even the most complex scientific, engineering, organizational and economic problems. Three years ago, we were provided with a cutting-edge analytical transmission electron microscope Titan Cubed G2 60-300, one of the three most powerful microscopes on the planet. It is housed at the Faculty of Metals Engineering and Industrial Computer Science.
What role does international cooperation play in research conducted by your university?
We have signed over 400 agreements with foreign partners. Every year, we carry out nearly 200 research projects together with them. Today, in order to be creative, it is extremely important to join forces and undertake interdisciplinary research. This is evidenced, for example, by the Geneva-based European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), which has 2,600 permanent employees, including 60 from our university.
How keen are you to hire young researchers?
We have developed a good rotation model at the university whereby talented young people stay on at the university after graduation and pursue their doctoral degrees. And later they vacate their positions as lecturers to younger people and embark on a career in industry, or stay on at the university. Every year most of the 100 Ph.D. students who complete their studies and defend their dissertations apply to stay on at the university. Of course, the path of a scientific career is intended for the best and most creative individuals. Suffice to say that some of them boast professorial titles, although they are just over 30 years of age.
One of our selling points is that we create good conditions for students to get an education and pursue their non-university activities. Close to the university’s teaching and research buildings is the dorm complex, home to almost 9,000 students. They have at their disposal a well-equipped academic library that was recently expanded and modernized at a cost of zl.15 million. They have clubs and stores. Moreover, they can take advantage of a large sports and entertainment complex that includes a swimming pool, a gym, a bowling alley, tennis, volleyball and handball courts, and a football pitch.
The AGH UST Alumni Association will turn 70 next year...
The university has so far produced more than 170,000 engineers and master’s degree holders. Our graduates, however, do not want to part with their Alma Mater. Let me mention the famous tenor Wiesław Ochman in this context. Even though he is now an opera singer, he remains faithful to his Alma Mater, having graduated from its Faculty of Ceramics. The AGH UST Alumni association brings together many prominent executives and CEOs of large companies, lecturers and people holding various high-ranking positions.