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Dimos Poulikakos in the lab where he has spent hours on end. (Photograph: ETH Zu
Dimos Poulikakos in the lab where he has spent hours on end. (Photograph: ETH Zurich / Gian Marco Castelberg)
Dimos Poulikakos is retiring in January 2024. The ETH Professor of Thermodynamics has developed many practical applications. His lectures on the fundamentals of thermodynamics have delighted more than 8,000 students; now he passes on a piece of advice for aspiring researchers.

Dimos Poulikakos is a man of many interests, one of which is music - he would love to be able to play the piano brilliantly, or the guitar, or even the violin. But somehow that hasn’t happened yet. As a child, he turned to other activities, sport in particular, playing both football and basketball. Nowadays, he swims and spends time on the tennis court; he also enjoys hiking and photography. After his retirement, he hopes to take up the many invitations he has received to conferences, and so combine something pleasant with something useful - travel and keeping abreast of research. So it’s hardly surprising that Dimos Poulikakos is looking forward to his retirement. But a few years ago this wasn’t so: Poulikakos counts himself fortunate to have been one of the few professors to be granted an extension beyond retirement age. "It meant I could finish off my ongoing projects, and I’m very grateful to ETH for that."

Grasping the key concepts of thermodynamics

Poulikakos has enjoyed a highly successful career: his work on thermodynamics has met with international acclaim, and he also gained recognition within ETH, serving as a member of the ETH Research Commission (2001-2005), as Vice President for Research (2005-2007), and Head of the Department of Mechanical and Process Engineering (2011-2014). His commitments have extended beyond the university too; he was, for instance, elected to the Swiss Academy of Engineering Sciences in 2008 and served as President of its Scientific Advisory Board from 2012 to 2015. Since January 2020, he has chaired the Programmes division of the National Research Council at the Swiss National Science Foundation.

Yet, when asked about the highpoints of his career, Poulikakos comes up with a different aspect: "Teaching and interacting with students and doctoral students has always been immensely important to me." Right from the outset, his lectures on the fundamentals of thermodynamics blazed a new trail. He was keen for students to understand basic concepts such as energy, enthalpy and entropy, as well as the significance of the laws of thermodynamics - in depth, and on their own. This understanding would then serve as a basis from which they could develop ground-breaking technologies. Poulikakos believed that teaching fundamental thermodynamics through existing technologies, such as the steam turbine or the internal combustion engine, limited the students’ understanding and didn’t reflect the universal relevance of the subject.

He gave his first lecture at ETH in German, even though after only five months of instruction, he barely spoke the language. "I managed to get by with the help of a detailed PowerPoint presentation and an assistant who prompted me when I couldn’t find the right word!" he admits. Despite his linguistic shortcomings, he received a standing ovation. This sign of appreciation and the generous goodwill meant much to Poulikakos and made him feel very welcome at ETH.

In the course of his 27 years at ETH Zurich, Poulikakos delivered his lectures on the fundamentals of thermodynamics to some 300 students a year, which amounts to over 8,000 graduates - an impressive number. On top of this, he supervised more than 90 doctoral students. His commitment has not gone unnoticed, and as a sign of their appreciation, his group gave him a football table for his 60th birthday. "I’ve only just now brought the table back into my office. Unfortunately, I had no time to try it out earlier - but my group members have had great fun with it," says Poulikakos, with a twinkle in his eye.

An interdisciplinary approach to interfacial transport phenomena

Poulikakos was appointed Full Professor of Thermodynamics at ETH in 1996. He lost no time in setting up the Laboratory of Thermodynamics in Emerging Technologies, where he carried out basic research in the fields of thermodynamics and transport processes in energy and nanotechnology. His keen interest and insight embraced not only thermodynamics but also new materials and processes, enabling him to come up with practical applications time and again. One such example is 2D and 3D printing with disperse inks containing nanoparticles. Others include the cooling of electronic chips, and methods to regulate the absorption of sunlight by various materials.

Poulikakos was particularly enthusiastic about developing new technologies at the interface with other specialist areas. He cites biomedicine as an example. Under his leadership, an interdisciplinary team succeeded in developing a membrane on which connective tissue cells cannot be deposited. Their research led to the founding of a spin-off that markets such membranes to encase pacemakers. Here, the membrane prevents fibrous tissue from growing around the implant.

’What I really appreciate about ETH is the immense scope for interdisciplinary collaboration.’

Poulikakos found his time as Vice President for Research particularly challenging. "ETH is a wonderful university; it offers you a wealth of opportunities. That’s why I felt it important to play my part when asked to take on a function," he explains. But the new role with all its responsibilities came at a turbulent time, when a significant reorganisation of the institution was underway. During his term of service, Poulikakos realised that his passion lay not in management but in teaching and research - activities he had continued despite the new commitment. So, he wasn’t unhappy to step down from the post after a couple of years.

Advice for aspiring researchers

As he closes this chapter of his life, what advice would Dimos Poulikakos give young researchers on the brink of their academic career? They should try things out, take risks and question what’s accepted, he says. And above all, have fun! Many starting researchers aren’t even aware of the technological advances that have been made in the last few decades and the advantages these bring. "Whereas our predecessors had to imagine many things, we now have ways to carry out experimental research at the molecular, sub-molecular and atomic levels. We should use this privilege to develop new technologies that take humanity one step forward."

’I sincerely wish ETH all the best and would like to express my thanks for the many years I’ve spent at this special university.’

Even though he’s looking forward to life after ETH, there are things Poulikakos will miss: "Coming into my office and breathing the ETH air, for one. And of course, conversing with my research group, and with the doctoral students and undergraduates." Now all his doctoral students have graduated, and his ongoing projects have been concluded, the last thing to tackle is clearing out his office. Much has accumulated over the 27 years; he needs to decide what to throw away or recycle, and what to take with him. A place at home is already earmarked for the football table.
Deborah Kyburz