Get to Know a Grantee - Dr. Jack Hellerstedt

By Maureen Heydt 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Jack Hellerstedt
Jack Hellerstedt, a postdoctoral researcher at Monash University by way of the University of Maryland, is serving this year as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar to the Institute of Physics at the Czech Academy of Science in Prague. Jack is working in a lab as part of the Jelinek Group, where he conducts research related to the photographing of molecules. Close to the end of his grant year now, Jack discusses his research, which has led him to work across three continents, as well as what his research entails, and what his Fulbright experiences in Prague have been like. 

-------------------------------------- Fast Facts ----------------------------------------
  • U.S. Position: Postdoctoral Researcher, Faculty of Science, Monash University, Australia
  • Czech Affiliation: Institute of Physics, Czech Academy of Science, Prague
  • Project: Two-Dimensional Quantum Spin Liquids in Organometallic Molecular Frameworks Studied by Scanning Tunneling Microscopy
  • Major Discipline/Specialization: Physics/Semiconductor Surface Physics
  • Academic Background: Ph.D., Physics and Astronomy, University of Maryland, 2015
  • Favorite Czech phrase: “Pražská kavárna”
  • Favorite quote: "Keep cool, but care."-V. by Thomas Pynchon

Hello! Can you please give a brief introduction of yourself?
I’m from Minnesota, I was raised in the Twin Cities. I went to elementary school in Minneapolis, and then high school in St. Paul, and I like to think that I can say I’m from the Twin Cities in the ‘twin’ sense of the word. I did my undergraduate at the University of Minnesota. I did physics and math. Life’s been easy in that sense, because I’ve always really known that I enjoy doing what I do now. And then I went to the University of Maryland, where I talked my way into having a research assistantship with Michael Fuhrer. I lived in D.C. for two years, and then he [Michael Fuhrer] called a meeting one day, and he said, “Okay, I’m moving to Australia, and anyone who wants to help move the lab with me to Australia can come with,” and how many chances do you get to do that? So that’s how the next three years I spent in Australia. Then I got this opportunity, so now I’m here.

And what are your hobbies?
In D.C. it was really cool, because out in the Maryland suburbs of D.C. where the university is, they have a dedicated tap dance studio in Tacoma Park. It took me a while living there to stumble upon this, and that was a lot of fun, so I do miss that.

Here in Prague, there are a couple bouldering places. I like it, because it’s sort of like the thinking man’s exercise. There’s the strength component to it, but you also work problems and piece together the solution of how to move from point A to point B, which is a nice way to unglue from a computer.

And when you were looking at Fulbright, why did you choose the Czech Republic to apply to, specifically?
I did a three-month research program in Japan, and so I was on their mailing list. Pavel Jelinek, the guy I work for here at the Institute, which has a lot of relationships with various Japanese institutions, was advertising this postdoc positon, and I got an email in my inbox by proxy. I thought, ‘this looks interesting,’ so I looked him up on the internet and I sent him an email. He had done a Fulbright in Arizona, so he was aware of the program, and he was like, “well, okay, you’re American, why not apply?” So, I cooked up the research proposal, sent it, and now here I am.

And so what work are you doing this year at the Czech Academy of Science?
So they are experts at taking picture of molecules. The big claim to fame here is that they have a very good theoretical understanding of how to achieve the ‘physics’ of achieving sub-molecular resolution. So, you can see a molecule and it’s a bright spot. Then you do physics secrets and then you are able to actually resolve the bond structure. So it’s like from chemistry class you draw what a molecule looks like, and then this is what they actually look like. You can think of this as a camera that can take that picture, instead of just drawing the picture. This is something I’m interested in, and they have this expertise, so that’s how I came up with this idea of here’s a good place to do this kind of project.

Is language ever a problem in the lab?
Everyone speaks English, and the second most widely spoken language is actually Spanish, which was a surprise. They have strong connections in Spain. I’m the token American, and we have Ukrainians and couple of Spanish postdocs, a Spanish Ph.D. student, and there’s another Erasmus student from Spain, so it’s a very international lab.

And what has been the most rewarding part of this experience for you so far?
The guys I’m working with really enjoy what they’re doing, so just to be in an environment where it’s a pleasure, and it [doesn’t feel like] work. I think that’s a real perk in science is, it’s not a job, it’s a pleasure. And these guys in particular, because at the end of the day in science, you have to ask for money to do stuff and as soon as there’s that dynamic, it becomes political. I famously don’t have time for that, and these guys also I think are more interested in doing science and understanding things. Everyone is quite switched on about what they’re working on, and it’s great.

Why are international education and exchanges important for people to experience?
To spend a meaningful amount of time to actually get some perspective on how people live in a different place is how you get perspective. You just have to do it, and deal with the daily how do I feed myself etc., and now I’m in this totally different environment and solve all these mundane human problems. Then you solve them and you come up with a different set of solutions on how to live given a different environment, and it’s like, ‘oh, this is different.’ Here’s what’s better, here’s what’s worse, but until you do that it’s just – I can have some opinions about some place, but until you actually go and do it, you don’t have any sort of experience.

And what does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
This has been a real pleasure to be here and do this. The [Fulbright] English Teaching Assistants is a thing I didn’t know existed, and I live in Prague and work with people who speak English, and the name of the game in physics is to be aware of what’s happening in the larger community and it’s very internationalized in that sense, but to go teach English in some place, that’s a real challenge. This hasn’t been a challenge; this has been a pleasure.

I see, especially now, that since everyday it’s like a game to see how much more horrifying headlines can get, and it sort of makes you understand history a little bit more, and everybody’s putting up the literal walls, and what is nationalism in the ugly sense, it’s this fear of the other, and to sort of come full circle, I think Fulbright has immense value in sending Americans, people with faces and names and stories to interact in that human way, to humanize all of these abstracts. If you can put a face and name and a story on these larger nationalistic ideas, I think that is definitely a force for making everybody be nice to each other more.

What do you plan to do after your Fulbright year?
I’m going to stick around; I’m going to keep working for Pavel here. The science train just continues on uninterrupted.

And do you have any advice for anyone considering applying for a Fulbright?
Why would you not apply? Putting together this proposal was actually fun, I enjoyed this one. Get an idea, and then take it. For Americans, it’s like, here’s a very generous gift from Congress to fling yourself out into the world and get some perspective on something. So come up with what you want to do. I think the Fulbright isn’t the ends, it’s the means. That’s how I came to be doing this.

And is there anything else you would like to add?
Got to plug the Fulbright Commission, because they have made it a real treat to be here. This is really nice, these are people who are invested in me being successful in whatever it is I’m doing here, they are very responsive and helpful. I mean, bureaucracy is inevitable and sometimes you’re in situations where the bureaucratic machinery needs to be overcome in in the pursuit of what you’re trying to do and then in other circumstances, these are people who are trying to help you be successful, and that’s always fantastic.

Molecule manipulation images taken during Jack Hellerstedt’s time at the nanosurf lab.

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