European Faces of Physics


Getting your PhD work into the New Journal of Physics "Einstein Year Issue" special, returning to your home country after several years abroad to an independent position, and obtaining a university chair under the age of 40, are certainly not career achievements to be sniffed at.

The three European physicists described below have pulled these things off. They may be at various stages of the careers, but they share a common fervour for solving theoretical or experimental problems in physics and have a determination to get out there and find good science.

Swiss-born Patrick Mayor is finishing his PhD at Lausanne's Federal Institute of Technology in Switzerland ( Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, EPFL). Mayor studied theoretical physics at the undergraduate level but decided to work as an experimentalist for his doctorate. Mayor's experimental work, though, is on such a fundamental issue?the thermodynamic behaviour of granular systems?that theoreticians are his closest collaborators. "We [experimentalists] try to understand the theory, carry out appropriate experiments to test it, or give them [the theoreticians] new ideas".

The properties of granular materials have baffled physicists since Einstein's era because they do not fit neatly into the category of solid or liquid state. But whereas Einstein's work was on equilibrium systems, Mayor is studying systems that are out of equilibrium. Specifically, Mayor has investigated the parameters (quantities analogous to temperature and viscosity) of sand when it is vibrated in a vessel to become "fluidised."

To the researchers' surprise, the sand's thermodynamic properties were not far removed from "systems in equilibrium" (for example, a gas in a vessel). Data that support a generalisation of Einstein's theory of Brownian motion to complex systems is big news in the physics world?hence its publication in the "Einstein Year" issue of the New Journal of Physics.

Spanish postdoc Elena Bascones

Asked to describe his part in this success, Mayor credits others; he was, he says, "lucky to arrive at the institute when some promising work had already been done." He also believes that he has greatly benefited from good mentorship, a fine balance of supervision, and independence. On the successful completion of his thesis this coming summer, Mayor plans to do a postdoc abroad.

At another Swiss Federal Institute of Technology--Zürich's Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich ( ETH)--Spanish postdoc Elena Bascones is working on the theory of condensed matter, as she has been since her PhD work in Madrid in the late ?90s. Bascones has always been interested in working on the theoretical side because she enjoys trying "to interpret experiments and to predict new properties that can be measured".

After finishing her PhD in Madrid, she opted to do a postdoc at the University of Texas in Austin for 18 months, and then took up her current position at the ETH. Bascones has found the experience of working in different labs ? particularly abroad ? "very helpful"and enriching in many ways. She has no doubt that it helped provide her with her next opportunity: She will shortly leave the ETH to take up an independent "Ramon y Cajal" (RyC) Spanish government funded fellowship position in Madrid. This prestigious fellowship funds her position for 5 years.

Bascones is fully aware that even half-decent career opportunities in her native country are hard to find; in fact, she's been working for years to try to change things. Bascones has long been an active member of the Spanish Young Researchers Federation ( Federación De Jóvenes Investigadores, FJI), campaigning for better career opportunities for scientists in Spain. She was also a co-author of a report that criticised the precarious conditions for Spanish early-career researchers.

Bascones has some advice for budding physicists: pick both a sound PhD project and supervisor (group) she says, and don't rush into a project without knowing what kind of future the field is likely to have. "Some people start their PhD when a certain topic is coming to a [natural] end", she explains. She goes on to say, "some [PhD] advisors are very good for helping early stage researchers and others can make you leave science!" She also advocates a stint abroad at some stage.

Professor Andy Schofield (pictured above) also has advice for early-career physicists. He urges them to get out and meet fellow researchers (see box for his tips on Summer Schools and Events) and to "never turn down an opportunity to give a talk." He should know: although he has not yet turned 40, Schofield has already secured a professorship in theoretical physics at the University of Birmingham, not a common happening in the UK for someone so young.

Patrick Mayor investigates the properties of granular materials in the lab.

Schofield started out at the University of Cambridge, where he did his undergraduate and his PhD work on condensed-matter theory. After graduating he won a College Research Fellow position from Cambridge but, fearing that he could have too much Cambridge appearing on his CV, he opted to put is fellowship on hold and go further afield, to Rutgers University, New Jersey, U.S.

Get out and meet physicists!

Andy Schofield recommends the Physics Summer School at "Les Houches" in the very nice setting of the French Alps. The school runs two 5 week courses each year on theoretical physics (this year's courses are on "Mathematical Statistical Physics" and "Particle Physics beyond the Standard Model"). The deadline for receipt of applications for this year's courses is 4 March 2005. Schofield attended the summer school half way through his PhD and found it "very influential." He says, "I'm still in touch with people I met on the school".

Schofield also recommends the summer schools that the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) at Trieste, Italy, organise. A list of their events can be found on the ITCP Web site.

Schofield believes that he benefited from working within Rutger's relatively large theoretical physics community during his 2-year postdoc, as well as from having contact with lots of experimentalists. Another bonus was joint seminars with "blue sky researchers" from neighbouring companies such as Bell Labs and NEC at the time.

On return to the UK two years later, Schofield was able to pick up the Cambridge fellowship he had put on hold and raise his profile in the UK. A year later he received a prestigious Royal Society University Fellowship, which provides funding for 5 years. Two years later, a call came from Birmingham University offering him a lectureship, which led in due time to his current professorship.

Schofield feels that his independent funding--in addition to the Royal Society fellowship he also won a NATO Research Grant that he used to pay for his time at Rutgers--was his trump card looking for positions over this career. "There is nothing like having your own money; it's a bargaining tool,"he says.

Despite having made it in academia, Schofield is very open-minded about non-academic career options for physicists. His PhD supervisor is now working in commodities at Goldman Sachs. He views the "mathematical competencies and problem solving skills" of physics graduates and postgraduates as very useful in sectors from "meteorology to finance."

In his current position, Schofield enjoys being at the interface of theoretical and experimental physics. "Nature is more imaginative than I am", he confesses, "you can't [necessarily] extrapolate from simple to complex systems". Properly measured, nature's complexities give the theoretician "a fresh way of looking at things."

It seems certain that the complex systems of the natural world will keep theoretical and experimental physicists in business for years, maybe well past Einstein's annus mirabilis bicentenary 100 years hence. All Next Wave's interviewees were of the opinion that physics is healthy and vibrant, and they are definitely ready to take on the challenges it offers. Back in the lab, vibrating sand for his next experiments, Mayor just laughs when his friends ask him, "So when are you off to the beach to get your next sample?"

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