Holger Saar: Startup Skills and Experiences Are Priceless for Scientific Career.

Holger Saar

What interests you besides science?

Many think it’s the polar opposite, but besides science I also do bodybuilding.

It started like it usually does, I went to the gym to try and get in shape, but then my interest grew to be more serious and I decided to start competing. In April 2015, I got first place in the junior category at the Estonian Cup.

What kind of training do bodybuilders go through?

It’s similar to what weightlifters do, but there’s more emphasis on nutrition. Keeping an eye on what you eat can help achieve even greater results than working out does. Bodybuilders are advised to eat two grams of protein for each kilogram of their weight per day. Luckily enough I like cottage cheese.

How small are the particles that your specialty of nanotechnology looks at?

Very small – these are objects that are a million times smaller than a millimeter. More precisely, the topic of my Bachelor’s thesis was the nanoparticles of iron oxide. There are so many applications for them, for example, even in treating cancer. While currently a person’s whole body is charged full of destructive chemicals, then these particles that work like little magnets could be used in the future to direct the medicine only towards the cancerous growths, leaving the rest of the body healthy.

Since the particles are superparamagnetic, they can be pulled towards a magnet in a human body, however, when you take the magnet away, the particle isn’t magnetized anymore. So that means there is no danger of them coagulating into one big clump that could, for example, end up in the circulatory system.

At the same time, there are those who are concerned about the impact of nanoparticles on human health and say that it hasn’t been thoroughly researched yet…

Yes, since these particles are so small, they can easily penetrate skin, but in general they are not dangerous. Even in just a gram of brain tissue there are already 100 million iron nanoparticles that occur there naturally. In the lab we don’t use any safety equipment other than lab coats and rubber gloves.

How are nanoparticles created?

There are a lot of different ways they can be synthesized and they can be bought ready-made as well, but then they’re quite expensive – if you were to price the per kilogram, a kilo of the highest quality particles could cost as much as 236 million euros. We synthesized 1-2 grams of particles from iron nails. It’s actually quite a long process: you mix various chemicals with the iron nails, then you have to heat the mixture, mix it and later clean the chemicals off the particles. It takes several days.

When did you realize that science was something that interests you?

It was probably at the Kohila high school. First, I discovered that I did quite well in those subjects – I got quite a few first place prizes in chemistry and physics, and I even won the German language Olympiad in Rapla County. My interest became more serious when we had a research project in our senior year, where we had to measure the noise level in different schools. The research went so well that I got to represent Estonia at an environment themed research competition in Turkey in spring 2012.

Were there subjects in which you didn’t do that well in school?

My weakest subjects were art history and music history. I can’t help it, I just can’t remember the life stories of different people.

Where are you planning on studying next?

At the moment I’m looking at four universities, but the application process is still ongoing. Most of all I’m hoping to get into the Stevens Institute of Technology, located in the heart of New York City, but I’m also applying to North Carolina State University, University of Arkansas and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

My family is very proud and supportive and they’ve promised to come visit if I should stay in the US for longer.

Are you more a republican or a democrat?

Oh, politics…  (From the tone it’s clear that politics is anything but pleasant) I’m not prepared for political questions. I’d place myself somewhere in the middle at this point.

What are you hoping to achieve in the US in a year or two?

I’d like to get to know university life there and ideally also join a scientific working group, to see what scientific work and work ethics are like abroad. From what I’ve heard – although unfortunately I haven’t had a chance to experience it myself – the way in which scientists work differs quite a bit from one country to another. I’ve heard that in the US there are more chances to dedicate yourself to working, because you can find housing on campus, even right next to the labs.

How are you planning on spending the stipend? 

It will probably go towards everyday necessities – the support is rather symbolic, but it’s definitely of some help. I also get a stipend from the university and the laundry detergent company pays for me to go experiment at different labs, try different scientific methods and equipment that they could need in the future. Those kinds of skills and experiences are priceless in terms of a scientific career.

Laundry detergent company?

It’s actually a start up that the five of us got together. Our plan is to create a reusable laundry detergent with the help of nanoparticles – ideally you wouldn’t have to change it for a whole year.  

Have you already done laundry with this eternal detergent?

At the moment, we’re still working on the prototype – the idea won us third prize at the biggest sustainable development technology competition in Europe. So there is potential there. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t work.

I’m also involved in one more project – in Belgium we’re testing a radiation detector that wouldn’t be interrupted by cosmic radiation, which usually interrupts measurements with its “noise”. There are planes that surround the detector and they start to glow when in contact with cosmic radiation. That light is something we can measure and later we can cancel that cosmic radiation out in our data.

Do physicists sometimes make jokes too?

Yes, but they’re the kind that probably only other physicists would get…

Do you have an example?

There’s this typical physicist joke, where they ask a physicist which horse will win the race and the physicist presumes that the horse has to be completely spherical and in a vacuum. (a few seconds of silence). The joke is that physics always deals with simplifying models.

What would bring you back to Estonia in the future?

I have to think about that. (Pause) On the one hand, Estonia is my homeland, but on the other hand there’s also the desire to take Estonian science forward. If we don’t do it, who will?

You in 2030?

I’ll probably be a wise bearded physicist, but other than that I don’t know. In that time the world will change so much that there’ll perhaps be fields that don’t exist today. 15 years ago nanotechnology basically wasn’t researched yet, there were no possibilities to do so.

Day or night?

I’d rather pick day. I’m too tired to do anything productive at night.

Cat or dog?

Rather dog. I haven’t had any cats. Dogs seem friendlier.

Ketchup or mustard?

Tough one. (Pause) Ketchup. Goes with more foods.

Favorite month?

April. It’s my birth month and that’s when it starts getting warmer.

Favorite number?

I wouldn’t discriminate like that.

Favorite browser?

Chrome – seems to be the fastest.

Ugly color?

For some reason I don’t like grayish green colors.

Tea or coffee?

Coffee – helps you stay awake better.

North or south?

North – because Estonia is in the north.

Bus or train?

I choose bus. The tickets are so cheap now.

Fir or oak?

Rather fir – beautiful tree and smells good too.

East or west?

Rather west – that’s where friendlier countries are.

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