Get to know PhD students in CCMX projects

03.07.2012- A Smile for Christina Pecnik

Whether hearing about her newfound passion for playing squash, the Croatian island where she "knows every stone," or the results of a recent experiment, it is easy to smile at PhD student Christina Pecnik's energy and enthusiasm. Beware if you do though—you may find her examining your teeth.

"It's not something I consciously do, but I do notice people's teeth more than at the beginning of my work," she said.

Christina is part of a team of materials scientists, dentists and biologists at ETH Zurich, the University of Zurich, Empa and Institute Straumann AG aiming to improve the look of dental implants by covering the grey titanium they are based on with a coloured ceramic coating. Christina, who works closely with advisor Prof. Ralph Spolenak at the Department of Material Science at ETH Zurich and fellow PhD student Daniel Muff, focuses on making sure the coatings hide the titanium's grey hue that can shine through the gum and also endure the extreme environment of the mouth. It is a change from her master's thesis, done at ETH Zurich's Laboratory of Metal Physics and Technology, which focused on iron-based stents specifically designed to dissolve in the body.

"This is a totally new area for me," said the Zurich native who started her PhD project in 2010. "I wasn't expecting to work on dental implants, but I think it's a good topic. It's challenging to work as a materials scientist and simultaneously get to know the completely different world of implantology."

Christina's work is based on ceramic thin films developed by her colleague Daniel.  And so, while she enjoyed her recent vacation on Brac, the Croatian island she knows so well, she had a burning question for him upon her return.

"'Do you have any new coatings?!'" she said. "That's the very first thing I asked Daniel the minute I came back. I'm always excited to see what he is going to do next." 
Christina, who alternates her time between an office at ETH Zurich and labs at the University of Zurich's Centre of Dental Medicine, says that designing various experiments and anticipating their results is one element of the project she likes best.

"With immersion testing, for instance, you put your coated samples in solutions meant to simulate the oral environment and then you get to find out what's really going on over two weeks or so," she said. "Do we get cracks or blisters? Does it change the colour? I'm always really excited to see what has happened. " 

Supervising her first student assistants earlier this year has also been a highlight of the project. While Christina has led practical labs before, this was the first time she felt so directly responsible for the students. Although it was somewhat stressful, she can nonetheless see herself continuing to teach.

”Students nowadays are very interested and motivated in this kind of field," she said. "Seeing this enthusiasm gives you a sort of kick to try harder in your own work." 

Text by Carey Sargent



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