Marija Gajdardziska was supposed to be a boy. “I was a surprise!” she said in an interview with Discovery World. Her baby pillow had a hunter on it. Her parents were ready to name her after her grandfather. Her parents didn’t think that being a girl was bad or anything, they just assumed she was going to be a boy. Ultrasound wasn’t available in Štip, Macedonia back in 1958. Ultrasound imaging wasn’t really available anywhere back then.
Her family recovered quickly. “My grandfather and father were very important influences in my life because once they, you know, adjusted to the reality that they have a daughter and a granddaughter, they took me to all the places other fathers and grandfathers took their sons and grandsons. So in some way that prepared me for life later in a male-dominated discipline.”
As a kid, Gajdardziska was smart, curious, and adventurous. And she hung around other smart, curious, adventurous kids. She was a straight-A student, but maybe not your typical straight-A student.
“We were a pretty rowdy bunch. I was alternating between David Bowie and Rod Stewart hairdos. I was a rebel, which you kind of need for science if you’re going to do some really interesting and different things. Because science goes forward through evolutionary accumulation of knowledge and through leaps. And sometimes you cannot make a leap unless you have enough pieces of the puzzle, but the people who make the leaps are people who pose new questions.”
Her grades were so good that she could’ve studied anything she wanted after high school. “I didn’t want to be a medical doctor. I didn’t want to do law. My sister and my cousin, both women, they went into electrical engineering. I wasn’t going to be a number three in anything, so I was left with physics, architecture, and archaeology. Those were the three things that, in the end, I was picking from.”
Two people in particular nudged her towards physics. The first was a wonderful, kind, and demanding middle school physics teacher who did lots of experiments and turned physics into an adventure. The other was Brian May, the lead guitarist for the rock band Queen. Gajdardziska was in high school when she first heard “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
“I was a kid who loved rock music, but I also listened to classical music. I listened to opera. And so I hear this rock music that was made for me. And I look up the bios of the people in the band, and the lead guitarist was doing his graduate studies in physics.”
Gajdardziska studied engineering physics at Ss. Cyril and Methodius University of Skopje where she became interested in the architecture of atomic structures and what happens at the surface of materials. “When you look at most of our technologies, usually the most interesting things happen at the end of the solid, at its surface where it interfaces with either a gas or a liquid or another solid. When you limit the dimensionality of a solid, you get into a realm where the properties are completely different.” Nanoscience. Nanotechnology. Not that anyone called it that back then.
Her first scientific paper was on transparent, conductive surfaces. Incredibly thin films that conduct electricity. The kind that allow solar panels to transform sunlight into electricity. The kind that allow screens to become touchscreens. Gajdardziska discovered them as an undergraduate.
She studied atomic laser physics in Grenoble, France. She earned her masters from the University of Sydney in Australia and her PhD from Arizona State University. In 1993, she joined the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as the first female professor in the physics department. Now there are five, and another physicist from Sweden will arrive next year.
“The social science literature says to never be the first one because the first one never survives. At the same time somebody has to be the first one. I think that having so much respect and training from my father and grandfather is what really helped me to make it here.”
And why UW-Milwaukee?
“The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee was the place with the best national and international reputation for surface science. It was interdisciplinary, happening here in chemistry, physics, and engineering, and I love the interdisciplinary work. And so I interviewed, and I ended up being the top candidate, and they offered me a position.”
Gajdardziska-Josifovska is also a pioneer in something called In Situ Electron Microscopy. She makes movies of atoms. She can observe changes to those atoms as they happen and figure out how and why those changes are happening. These “atomic movies” led to the discovery of something entirely unexpected.
Gajdardziska-Josifovska, along with her colleague Dr. Carol Hirschmugl, created the very first two-dimensional, crystalline form of carbon monoxide that is a solid at Earth temperatures and pressures. They call it graphene monoxide. It is a solid with limited dimensionality. Limited to just two, in fact. Graphene monoxide is all surface.
And turns out that this two-dimensional, crystalline, solid carbon monoxide is incredibly useful. “One of the things we’re doing now is we’re putting lithium between layers of graphene monoxide. We’re making batteries out of it, lithium-ion batteries. And they have superior properties compared to current lithium-ion batteries. Our batteries charge faster, last longer, and store more energy.” The plan is to build bigger, better batteries for electric vehicles, power tools, and other machines. And they are looking into other potential uses for graphene monoxide. “We have a grant from the National Science Foundation to explore if graphene monoxide would be useful to the electronics industry for sensors in laptops, cellphones, and the whole Internet of Things.”
The physicists had to learn how to be entrepreneurs. They were awarded patents. They pitched their product. They applied for grants and found investors. They started a company called SafeLi Materials, LLC. “We’ve learned so much about business you wouldn’t believe it. And our business mentor always says that we’re the fastest learners he’s ever seen. I think physics prepares you for that. It keeps your mind open.”
In addition to being a research scientist, Gajdardziska-Josifovska is a professor, the Dean of the Graduate School at UWM, Director of the Lab for High-Resolution Transmission Electron Microscopy, the Chief Technology Officer and co-founder of SafeLi Materials, LLC. She is also a Fellow of the Microscopy Society of America and has won (among other honors) the 2014 White House/National Science Foundation Presidential Faculty Fellow Award and the 2014 Women of Influence Award from the Milwaukee Business Journal.
You can learn more about Dr. Gajdardziska-Josifovska at our Heroes of Science gallery experience. Grab a pair of 3D glasses (provided) and explore!