Tuesday, June 6, 2023
Sister Covadonga saw it coming: "This girl shows promise." That girl who walked seven kilometers from her home in Corollos in the region of Cudillero to the Artedo station to go to a school run by nuns in Los Cabos in the municipality of Pravia, would end up being the first female president in the history of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC). So Rosa Menéndez, the studious girl who managed, with scholarships, to enroll in the School of Chemistry in the capital of Asturias and make a career as a researcher, did not hesitate a second to say yes to the proposal that came to her to lead the most important scientific body in the country. A clear example of what we know today as an inspirational example of STEM women.
"I was always driven by the desire to be useful. I wanted what I did to always serve a purpose and have an impact," she confessed. In the institution's 78-year history, it was the first time that a woman would share a space reserved, until then, only for men. She saw this image on a daily basis between 2017 and 2022, a time when she took the reins of Spanish science together with her team, which she describes as a dream team on a professional and human level.
To be honest, she admitted that at the time she did not even realize what it meant to be the first woman in that position. She always had her grandparents, her parents and, above all, the women in her family as examples. "Seeing how much of a fighter they were left a positive impression on me in the sense of how to deal with life," she said candidly. During those years at the helm, in addition to numerous interviews in the media, she believes that her example "forged a path." This is how many CSIC scientists described it to her, as she recalled: "If you've taken that step, so can we."
Energy and graphene for a better world
Menéndez has had her research career focused on energy and materials (she remembers with special affection the carbon-carbon composite materials research line she started in 1991), which were traditionally "very male-dominated" fields where she was one of only "two or three women" who could form commissions in Europe with a large majority of men.
A year ago, around this time, her time at the helm of the institution came to an end and she is still surprised about her case: " What is strange is that there had not been some other woman presiding over the institution before." She was replaced by another scientist, Eloísa del Pino Matute. Menéndez returned to her native Asturias to continue her research on the material that promises to turn the world upside down: graphene.
It was in 2004 when, following the discovery by two researchers from the University of Manchester, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, they managed to demonstrate this material's "exceptional" properties (which earned them the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics). Until then, the rest of the scientists working in this field were already familiar with it, although they thought it was "unstable." However, successful tests showed that its properties ("light weight, strength, conductivity and biocompatibility, among others), on a theoretical level, surpass those of any material currently available on the market".
Graphene's potential, for the time being, has no limits: it can be used for medical applications; environmental applications (in systems to detect and eliminate pollutants in the air or water) and even in the development of solutions related to data storage or memories. But without a doubt, the CSIC Research Professor at the current Institute of Carbon Science and Technology, located in the Principality of Asturias, focuses on its applications in the field of energy.
Menéndez cites the installation of redox flow batteries made of graphene (currently in the implementation phase) in wind turbines as an example, which would make it possible to store this energy "on a large scale" and harness it for uses with a high social impact, such as "facilitating access to energy supply in remote villages and towns."
She owes her journey with graphene in part to her colleague Avelino Corma at the Institute of Chemical Technology of the CSIC in Valencia. In 2010 she contacted him to prepare, together with other scientists from the institution and other universities, a Consolider project (a project with five-year funding for projects of excellence) to design materials with molecular recognition capabilities for industrial purposes, among other uses.
The value of Spanish science
"In the end, the important thing is people," he reflected in a now-empty room in the CSIC student residence in Madrid, where he spent a few days seeing friends and colleagues. A network of Spanish scientists that Menéndez considers to be "in very good health in terms of excellence and quality in a wide range of fields," professionals who are internationally recognized. She has reiterated this on many occasions, especially during her time as president: "The country's technological development is fundamentally based on scientific development."
That is why the development of energies like green hydrogen—which is the future," she says, "is fundamental." The professor is certain that it will be the technology to replace fossil fuels in the energy mix, together with renewables, "which are fortunately becoming increasingly important." She also stressed the importance of leveraging emerging innovations in energy storage "for when there are peaks in demand."
Going further, Menéndez suggests that "the future" will be fusion energy, that "great hope" that still has "a long way to go in research". Until that day arrives, her laboratory is waiting for in Oviedo, a city where, for several weeks now, she has been able to stroll down Calle Rosa Menéndez.
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