“I find it really interesting when I’m proved wrong”

Nicola Spaldin with the ETH mainframe Brutus, on which she run simulations. (Pho

Nicola Spaldin with the ETH mainframe Brutus, on which she run simulations. (Photo: Körber Foundation / Friedrun Reinhold)

Nicola Spaldin, Professor for Material Theory at ETH Zurich, is being awarded the Körber Prize in Hamburg today. In this , the British scientists explains what fascinates her about materials science and why she loves unanswered questions.

When did your enthusiasm for science and especially materials science begin? Did you have an early start?
My parents always supported me in getting a good education, but they didn’t directly influence my choice of studies. They ran a hiking centre in England, so I did inherit my passion for hiking from them. I first discovered science in school and I was always good in mathematics so I decided to study natural sciences, then pursued a doctorate in chemistry and began working as a post-doctoral fellow in applied physics. What I was doing and what interested me had really become materials science, so when I took up my first faculty position it was only natural that it was as a professor of materials science. What fascinates me is the interdisciplinary approach - the combination of physics, chemistry and materials properties.

Where does your inner drive come from?
I love the research process itself, and I particularly value negative results just as much as positive ones. I find it really interesting when a theory I’ve been pursuing turns out to be wrong.

You’re happy to be refuted?
(laughs) That may sound unusual, but for me it means that I’ve found an issue that I don’t yet know the answer to and there’s something new to explore there. That makes it really fun and challenging. I want to get to the bottom of things and not give up until I’ve fully understand a mechanism.

Is such perseverance a prerequisite to succeed in science? I think so. Most research is done in small steps each of which is a lot of work, rather than in big "eureka" moments. To succeed in research you also need a good background knowledge and analytical skills as well as, maybe most importantly, creativity.

You’re not only an excellent scientist but also a good lecturer. What do you like about teaching?
I find it exciting to explain an issue in such a way that my audience understands it. We also achieve results more quickly in teaching than in research. That’s very satisfying.

Why did you decide to move from the University of California to ETH in 2011?
To be honest, I never thought I would find a better place to work and live than Santa Barbara. But ETH and all that it has to offer, especially the working conditions, were irresistible. Unlike in the US, I can devote myself entirely to my research and teaching here rather than spending my time doing routine administrative work or writing proposals for funding In addition, my husband was recruited as a professor with the Automatic Control Laboratory at the Department of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering, which was of course very important to us.

And now that you’ve been at the ETH for a few years? What experiences have you gained? What do you like best?

Of course the best thing is the day-to-day research with my group. I have fantastic students, postdoctoral researchers and coworkers so we have a vibrant and stimulating research environment as well as fabulous administrative and technical support. One thing that I had not anticipated is the very positive attitude that Swiss society has towards science and technology and also to education. This creates a positive atmosphere both at the University - the students are prepared and enthusiastic - and in general. I’m sure it also influences the excellent availability of resources, financial, infrastructural and personnel. When I have a good idea, I can always find a way to implement it.

Lothar Dittmer (left), Chairman of the Executive Board of the Körber Foundation, and Martin Stratmann, President of Max Planck Society, present the Körber Prize 2015 to Nicola Spaldin.

Has it ever played a role in your profession that you’re a woman?
It’s hard to say because I’ve of course never worked as a man, but I’ve definitely noticed differences in how men and woman are treated. I have the feeling that young women would be more likely to choose science for their career if they realised how many social problems could be solved with the help of science or engineering. We need to do a better job of publicizing this.

Is that what you like most about your work?
I like that everything I do has a potential application. It’s what clearly distinguishes materials science from some other sciences - even our most basic research is usually somewhat close to reality.

This also holds true for your multiferroic research, for which you received the Körber Prize.
Yes. In the future multiefrroic materials could be used for example to store and process information in computers. We are also using them in a totally different application, to study the origin of the universe! We’ve shown that structural transformations in multiferroic crystals provide model systems to study the early developmental stages of the universe. This is very exciting and my favourite project at this time.

Has science changed your perception?
I experience the material world as very rich. Just as a musician takes in every single note of a symphony composition, I appreciate the atomic structure and microstructure in the materials around us. I often ask myself why a particular material behaves the way it does.

Speaking of music: it’s your other passion besides hiking.
That’s right. I play the clarinet, especially chamber music, and perform with the Zurich Orchestra Accento Musicale, among others.

To close this conversation, could you share a hiking tip?
Hmm, there are so many amazing places. I especially like Ticino. For me it combines the best of Switzerland with great food from Italy.

Körber Prize

The Körber European Science Prize , worth 750,000 Euros, is one of the most prestigious scientific awards in Europe. In the past 10 years alone, five researchers awarded the Körber prize went on to win the Nobel prize. The prize is awarded annually by the Körber Foundation in Hamburg, this year for the 31st time. The Körber Foundation honours outstanding and innovative research projects with high application potential. The prestigious prize last went to Switzerland in 2007 when ETH Professor Peter Seeberger was recognised for his groundbreaking work in the field of sugar synthesis.

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