Nikola, share with us your earliest impressions regarding science and technology, and what made you pick electrical engineering as your profession?
If I remember accurately, it was in the 6th grade of Elementary School that I got in touch with physics for the first time. But as long as I can remember, I used to walk around with a screwdriver that left sparks behind me.
At that time, I was in love with Nikola Tesla, and I got in touch with this kind of science more during my stay at the Petnica research center. Learning that electronics was more complex and difficult then energetics, the field looked like a challenge to me, and I liked it, so I decided to continue in a low-current mode.
Tell us more about how you were chosen for a prestigious 14-months stint at CERN out of an applicant pool as talented as this?
It was all circumstances – I was lucky that my qualities were noticed at the right moment. To be honest, I was already preparing my application for CERN, but I planned to come next year. However, at that time my supervisor needed a student who was very good at Altium, a program for PCB design. During my freshman year at college, I had decided that PCB design was maybe the most interesting for me, so I continued in that direction. I got an internship at a Serbian company called Mikroelektronika, where I learned a lot, and afterward, I started to work hard on PCBs at a robotic club called Memristor, where I had been a member since the first year of my studies. I believe that I was chosen because I pushed myself a lot and was seen as being in the forefront of my generation. The conclusion would be there is no success without hard work. Still, you get something and you lose something – due to my dedication to other fields I was no longer entitled to attend university for free.
What you are working on at the moment is a project related to PCB – Printed Circuit Boards. Can you tell us more about the product itself and the production process?
PCBs are green boards with a lot of small colorful components that you have seen for sure in every electronic gadget. The point is to design a circuit that should do something, using chips, resistors, capacitors, and to arrange their placement and interconnection by following the laws of physics. The boards that I am designing at CERN should be embedded in Particle Detectors, providing fast communication between sensors and back-end control rooms – places where supercomputers handle data giving instructions to sensors. So the complexity in this particular case is the very small surface and radiation hardness that is a hundred times more intense than space radiation.
The boards are flexible, too, which means that you can roll them and put them in your pocket. However, not many companies in the world fabricate them as they are very delicate – each board is as thin as a nail, with wires 50um (micrometer) in length. You can understand better how thin that is by having in mind that a human hair measures 100um.
What does a work day at CERN look like?
The CERN facility is quite nice, it is like a small independent city. The official working hours are 8:30 a.m – 5:30 p.m, including a one-hour lunch break; but if you are late, or if you get stuck in the laboratory until midnight, nobody will say anything to you, as long as you finish your work on time. What surprises me here are the outdated buildings. Still, the laboratories are very well equipped.
I usually go to work by bicycle or by bus and spend most of the day sitting and working. The good thing is that the restaurants here are very nice, so lunchtime is a good time to relax. Many people use their one-hour break to run, go to the gym, or dance in a dance studio.
My supervisor and colleagues are very nice and are richly experienced, so I learn a lot from them. We often ski together or grab a beer. We get along very well, despite the fact that I am one of the youngest on the team. I also spend a lot of time with my Serbian and Greek friends who study here.
What kind of approach to working have you encountered at CERN, and what do you like the most about the way the work is organized?
Uhh, a difficult question. There are 17.000 collaborators here, so the organization has to be very good otherwise anarchy would break out. I like working meetings. Every week we have group meetings where all of us present our own projects, and we are trying to solve all the problems together. However, they expect you to solve most of the problems you encounter on your own. I am responsible for my project’s design, fabrication, procurement, and all the other details.
You once said that even if you never got another chance to work in a similar working environment, the way of thinking you have developed while working at CERN would mean very much to you in your future business activities. Tell us more about that?
The way of thinking is what I just said. I have learned how to work in a big community, how to make something complicated from scratch, and how to present it to others – and all of this while using foreign languages. I will dare to say that I have met some of the smartest people on earth here at CERN. Still, they are all simple and normal individuals, none of them came from another galaxy. You can do anything if you truly believe in yourself, but not by following the expectations of your environment. Be a proud part of the society where you are working, either as a scientist, as a teacher, a baker, a farmer or a good mechanic.
You have been working on two very interesting projects using cutting-edge technology. Share the most impressive details with us.
My projects here include designing PCBs either for detector sensors or for testing some parts of sensors. The interesting detail is that everything is custom-made, so every chip, every mechanical part or component is made just for this special use. These parts are not meant to be used for commercial purposes, but this has a very good side – they are completely independent of other companies. Also, when you have a problem with a certain part, very often the person that designed it is just few hundred meters away from you. Technology is not science fiction, it is very hard to fabricate a lot of things, but it all works on very basic principles.
What is the most valuable business lesson you have learned so far while working at CERN?
It is definitely the people I have met and the business contacts. I know my job very well, so the next step should be connecting with others with the same interests around the world and making something out of it.
Having in mind that you see yourself working in Serbia, a country with very limited financial and technical resources, what are the ways that the current situation can be changed in the future, in your opinion?
I see Serbia as a rich country! We have great human resources, we just need to wake up and help our people. I see myself in Serbia because life abroad is not my thing. Yes, you have a high living standard, beautiful Alps and ski slopes, you can have an expensive car, but I don’t find my soul in all of that. I wouldn’t like my children to grow up with a room full of toys and walls full of travel photos without any heart.
Of course, I will do my best to improve working conditions in Serbia, but I can’t do it alone, we need to build a system for young people.
I would also like to point out that schooling in Serbia is much better than what you find in other EU countries because it gives students a good base, and it is widely focused and easily adaptable to new skills and further education. When you have a good theoretical base and you know how to use your head, you can get your arms around new fields easily. So my advice for young people would be – go out into this world and work! Your knowledge is the only and most valuable thing, and it will follow you wherever you go! Expensive houses, cars, phones, all of that can disappear in a second. Learn the laws of nature, live with nature, not in nature. Study foreign languages, the more the better! Doing all of this will open the doors of the whole world to you!
Photo credits: Irena Veljanovic