Seeking solutions for industrial problems

What does the customer need? That is the most important question when chemist Nina Simic kicks off a new research project. She is passionate about achieving innovations that have direct applications in industry.

Round flasks with bubbling liquids in all colours of the rainbow and rows of racks with fuming test tubes. Say the word chemistry and it’s easy for one’s thoughts to run away and paint a picture of a chemistry laboratory taken from an old Hollywood film. The reality for today’s modern chemists, however, looks radically different. Nina Simic in particular is a living example of that. Instead of wearing a white lab coat, she turns up for the interview dressed in an attractive silk blouse.

Today Nina Simic is the senior scientist for the global company AkzoNobel Pulp and Performance Chemicals. The company is the world’s leading producer of bleaching chemicals for the pulp industry and also produces special chemicals used in the manufacture of paints, cement and electronics.

Nina Simic works in the Department for Process Development, Bleaching Chemicals, at the company’s plant in Bohus. Instead of running tests in the laboratory, she now serves as a central figure for a number of research projects.
‘I work as a scientific leader and a member of the management team that controls the department’s research and proposes new research projects’, Nina says. ‘Some projects are very long-term, have a high academic level and are often conducted as university collaborations. Right now we are working with five universities, where I coordinate projects and supervise students.’

Nina Simic’s group currently is working on a solution to a specific challenge – finding an alternative to hexavalent chromium. The material is a necessary additive in the production process for chlorate. But because of its toxicity, in the European Union a permit will be required in order to continue using it after 2017.
‘We are under a great deal of pressure to find a solution, and as a researcher, I really enjoy the challenge of working on such a complex chemical problem’, says Nina.

She has always been motivated to see the industrial applications of research. ‘That’s why I have found my way to the business community. It’s exciting and challenging to immerse yourself in an industrial problem, break it down into basic chemical issues to be addressed and then translate the results of the research into new solutions that can be used industrially.’

Nina discovered how much fun it is to work in industry during her doctoral studies in inorganic chemistry at the University of Gothenburg. That was in the late 1990s when she had just received her bachelor’s degree in chemistry. The project continued for five years and was partly about optimising industrial batteries.
‘We collaborated with a battery company, and we found scientific explanations for why the batteries did not reach full power and what could be done about it. It was such a rush to deliver results to the company that could help them improve their products’, says Nina.

Her career then took her via a postdoctoral position with the electrochemical group at the University of Bern, Switzerland, to AkzoNobel in Bohus. The chemicals company called on her and offered her a specialist job in inorganic chemistry.
“It turned out to be a job that was a lot fun. The pace here is fast and you have to think in new ways. That suits my personality. I’m open and curious and see opportunities. And I can probably be a little impatient and somewhat of an optimist about how much time something takes,” she says, laughing.

Nina Simic’s interest in chemistry and chemical processes was aroused during her time in upper-secondary school outside of Kungälv. Through a dedicated science teacher, her eyes were opened to the natural sciences in general and chemistry in particular. The fact that her father was an engineer also contributed to the decision to continue her education at university. But what really clinched her commitment to studies was a year off from upper-secondary school.
“I was tired of school and worked as a dental assistant for a year. Being an assistant was so insanely boring that I became very motivated to study,” says Nina.

Nina’s motivating force is to have fun on the job every day. And she does just that. “I think it’s delightful and there are so many possibilities. But that also means it can get a little stressful now and then.”

However, she is careful about recharging her batteries and has her own outlet for regaining energy – horseback riding. The family lives next door to a stable where Nina has her horse, and early mornings or late evenings about five times a week she sits astride her horse.
‘That’s where I recharge my batteries. Getting that perfect communication with the horse is intoxicating when you channel the horse’s own motivation to do what you want.’

 In the future she wants to continue to work on developing new research projects in combination with business development, working closely with customers to understand their problems on a basic level of chemistry.

In addition, Nina wants to continue in her role as a supervisor of doctoral students. She thinks that the supervisory function is extremely rewarding. It is almost akin to a chemical process in which the right dose of feedback must be added to allow doctoral students to grow.

‘I think it’s so enjoyable to see how people grow. When a student is vacillating and uncertain at the beginning, but then with supervision develops into an independent and motivated individual.’

Nina Simic

Age: 47.
Occupation: Senior scientist at Akzo Nobel Pulp and Performance Chemicals in Bohus.
Place of residence: Björlanda.
Family: Partner and two children, 9 and 11 years old.
Leisure: ‘When I’m with the family or with my horse; riding has always been a passion.’