Women in Research: Katrin Fürsich From Germany

Katrin in the beamline BESSY in Berlin. Photo/Credit: Katrin Fürsich

Katrin from Germany is a PhD student at Max-Planck Institute for Solid State Research, Germany.

This interview is part of a series of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the 70th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting and the 7th Lindau Meeting on Economic Sciences to increase the visibility of women in research (find more information on Facebook and Twitter).

Her work focuses on the spectroscopic investigation of quantum materials. These exciting materials show a variety of fascinating properties that cannot be found in conventional metals or semiconductors. She studies these quantum materials using x-ray photons and in particular try to find out how their rich functionalities can be exploited for future applications such as energy-storage and conversion or next-generation electronic devices.

Enjoy the interview with Katrin and get inspired:

What inspired you to pursue a career in science / in your discipline?

Tackling the world’s most pressing challenges such as climate change and social injustice is my main motivation to pursue basic research. Being convinced that only knowledge will bring humanity forward, I am driven by curiosity to discover, understand and explain nature. Exactly this curiosity urged me to study physics, a field where models and theories are developed to explain the world we perceive. As an experimental physicist, I have the privilege to observe novel phenomena for the first time which no one has ever measured. This can lead to a completely new point of view, challenge traditional theories and spark discussions. I consider the procedure of pushing the frontiers of human knowledge an inevitably joyful experience. In particular, I work on fascinating materials that host unprecedented properties, which could be implemented into future applications of all kinds and help our society shape a green and sustainable future for all of us.

Who are your role models?

I was lucky enough to be surrounded by fascinating people that inspired me throughout my whole life. Being raised in a family of independent and strong women, I would say that my mother and grandmother were my first role models. Growing up in this environment shaped my future as I always knew: I can do everything what I want to do, as long as I am fully dedicated to it. Later on, after my Bachelor studies in physics, I worked with Dr. Mary Gilles who showed me the beauty of science and provided me the opportunity to work in an intercultural, international institute, a fascinating experience for me. She was never short on advice concerning the impact of science on society, and how to communicate science to public. Mary also taught me, that there is a life outside science and that being a good scientist does not necessarily mean being the whole time in the lab. Scientifically, I consider my PhD supervisor Prof. Dr. B. Keimer from the Max-Planck Institute as a role model. He dedicates his life to science, advocates the importance of scientific integrity and teaches to believe in great ideas and to always critically evaluate your own results. His way to advise, train and motivate students to become the next generation of great scientists is truly inspiring for me.

How did you get to where you are in your career path?

I studied Nanotechnology, a special program focused on solid-state physics, at the Julius-Maximilians University in Würzburg, Germany. During my time in Würzburg I was part of the Max-Weber programme, a fellowship for highly-gifted students, which is administered by the German National Merit Foundation. Among other benefits, the Max-Weber programme enabled me to join a local mentoring group, where I could exchange ideas with students at various stages in their studies and professors from our physics department on a regular basis. This was an inevitably important experience for me as I could learn from others and share my own knowledge with new members.

After finishing my Bachelor’s degree, I was supported by the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) to join the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California in Berkeley, USA for a nine month research stay. In Berkeley I worked in the groups lead by Dr. M. Gilles and Prof. Dr. S. Leone on metal-organic frameworks. It was during that time, that I discovered my joy and excitement for synchrotron-based research, i.e. the investigation of different materials using x-ray photons. I truly enjoyed the freedom during the internship to work on different projects and to pursue several experiments on my own. After returning to Würzburg I worked on my Master’s thesis in the group of Prof. Dr. V. Hinkov. As the group was only recently established at that time, I was for a large part the only student in the group. Therefore, I got the chance to work on the forefront of research in close collaboration with senior and more experienced scientists on a daily basis. After finishing my motivating and successful thesis, I decided to continue with science and work in the field of oxide materials and synchrotron-based research.
Therefore I moved to Stuttgart, Germany for my PhD at the Max-Planck Institute for Solid State Research. Since then, I am part of the Solid State Spectroscopy Department led by Prof. Dr. B. Keimer. At the Max Planck Institute, I benefit a lot from international exchange and the possibility to perform exciting experiments all around the world. I truly enjoy the freedom and collaborative atmosphere at the institute. In addition, I am lucky to have two great supervisors, Dr. M. Minola and Dr. E. Benckiser, whose guidance and support shape me as a scientist and as a person. After my graduation at the end of this year, I plan to do a post-doc at an international university or institute preferably outside of Europe.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

Ever since I started conducting synchrotron experiments, I was amazed by the technical complexity of the electron accelerator used to produce high-energy radiation, such as x-rays. There are thousands and thousands of cables, computers, and detectors which all work together to provide the perfect x-rays to the experiment that I want to run. One of the coolest projects was the first experiment I did in my PhD. We went to the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in France to work on rare-earth nickelates. I was able to participate at an experiment on the technically most advanced end-station word-wide, which is also the only place where this specific experiment was feasible. The so-called ERIXS end-station has a quite impressive appearance. The detector of this machine is situated on a 12 m long massive arm that is continuously moving on air pads. I was really intrigued by the engineering and
technical challenges that had to be overcome just to make my experiment possible. Finally, we were able to harness all offered opportunities of this machine successfully and to observe excitations which no one has ever measured before. We developed a model to explain and understand the magnetism in rare-earth nickelates and solved a long-standing puzzle in our scientific community. Even today, the nickelates are getting a lot of attention, as recently a group from Stanford has found superconductivity in these materials. So our method, which we developed at ERIXS could be used to study superconductivity — a really cool quantum phenomenon — and maybe help to realize cool projects such as magnetic levitation trains.

What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?

Last year I was organizing a TEDx event at the Max-Planck Institute together with other PhD students and postdocs, where we wanted to promote the benefits of basic research. The goal was to show to the public that a single idea, which emerged from basic research, can become something big, and potentially influence and enrich the lives of many. While I was quite proud of myself to see a filled lecture hall in the first place, I had a short discussion with a student that really blew my mind. She was a student in a former class, where I had been the teaching assistant. Due the good experience in the exercise sessions, she came all the way to our institute to attend the event. I felt really happy that I was able to inspire her to join the event and to enjoy a day full of science and physics.

What is a “day in the life” of Katrin like?

Most of my days are not alike, which is an important aspect I love about being a scientist. My daily routine varies depending on whether I’m in Stuttgart or at a synchrotron facility somewhere around the world.

Katrin presenting her research at a conference. Photo/Credit: Katrin Fürsich

In Stuttgart, I mostly go to the institute by bike at around 8.30 after breakfast at home. Following a regular check on the latest pre-prints of novel scientific studies, I perform experiments, continue data analysis or prepare samples for some upcoming experiments at the synchrotron. At noon I have lunch at the canteen with all the members of our group. After lunch I enjoy a coffee mostly with other PhD students from our group, while discussing new findings, individual challenges or just everyday life. In the afternoon I continue the work from the morning, i.e. either data analysis or experiments. After work, I bike to the gym to exercise twice a week and return home for dinner.

A day at the synchrotron is quite different as there is always something happening, which we did not foresee. Usually I have to get up only after a couple of hours of sleep, go back to the beamline and continue the experiments. Sometimes we work in shifts of two people or more, so I meet with the other team and we discuss how to proceed with our experiment. As every precious second of the experiment wants to be used, we need to often adopt our initial plans after some good thinking. After a long day at the beamline, I’m happy to enjoy a nice meal with my colleagues, and then I try to catch a couple of hours of sleep. Even though these days at the synchrotron can be sometimes quite tiring and exhausting, it is fascinating and really exciting to acquire novel data. At the beamline I can only guess what I will learn and extract from the data that I and all the others are measuring.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

I want to stay curious and keep my passion to discover new things. This can be obviously achieved by staying in science and continuing the work I am doing right know. I would also like to inspire others to follow their passion for science and to make everyone aware of the beauty of science, for example by training and teaching younger students. I am convinced that being a good and critical person will inspire more young people to pursue a career in science.

What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

In my free time I like to commit to projects focused on the promotion of women in science. For example, I participate in the Girl’s Day to demonstrate some cool experiments to young girls from high-schools. In addition, I am involved in a local mentoring group – the Athena group—here at the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research. We organize regular coffee breaks to facilitate exchange among female students and scientists, and we also established a mentoring program. To relax and free my mind, I like to spend time at the gym or on my bike, and I enjoy extended runs around the beautiful forests here in Stuttgart. In addition, I am a fan of traveling to learn about other cultures, explore other places and eat other food. In particular, I enjoy using unconventional and slow methods of transportation, and love traveling long distances by train: I took the trans-Siberian railway all the way to Beijing from Germany, crossed the US by train and went to Morocco with a combination of trains and ferries.

What advice do you have for other women interested in science / in your discipline?

Just do it. If you are interested in physics and curious, you should try it. After finishing high school, you should definitely think about enrolling in a study program to learn the basics of natural science, such as physics. The most important thing is that you are curious, even if you did not have the most charismatic or inspiring physics teacher in high school. The bachelor in physics is quite general, so it is important to keep in mind that after some basic introductory courses there are a lot of possibilities, which for the most part people are not aware of. This means that you can decide later on what you want to focus on while having a thorough scientific base. By then most likely you will also have a clear picture about your interests and you can better gauge your passions and capabilities. It is also important to accept that it will be hard journey and that you might struggle in some courses. Or it might be quite tricky and challenging to solve this one homework or exercise, but you should be proud and confident of your achievements. Accept the fallbacks and learn from them. Never give up and believe in yourself and your strength, talents and ambitions. Do your thing. You can do it! When in doubt, look for supportive people around you to overcome these challenges. This can be a study group of fellow students or other mentors. Try to connect with like-minded and with more experienced people and you will realize that you are not the only one struggling.
In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science / in your discipline?

My work mostly revolves around the study superconducting materials and to understand how they develop this unique quantum state. In think the next big thing will be the realization and upscaling of quantum computers, which use superconducting qubits as core building blocks. This is quite exciting, as these new computer can solve problems in no time for which conventional computer would takes ages. An example would be to calculate the fasted route for a package delivery and constantly update the path. However, I don’t think that everyone will have a quantum computer in their pockets. Rather, we will be able to leverage the benefits of these kinds of special computers from our mobile phones.

What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?

Katrin shares her enthusiasm for the natural sciences at the Girls’Day. Photo/Credit: Katrin Fürsich

One important aspect is to increase the number and visibility of role models to motivate young girls to follow a career in science. These role models are for sure successful female scientists, but I think it is equally important to show diverse career paths. The latter refers to professors of all genders that maybe work in part-time, took a sabbatical out of family reasons or that did not follow the typical straight line academic path. Offering and promoting different approaches of being a good and successful scientist will (hopefully) reinforce diversity, and in the long run make science and in particular physics more attractive for women, and contribute to a systematic change. However, it will be a long way and it’s not going to be easy. Therefore, I think a gender quota might be necessary to speed up the necessary change of working culture. Creating a support system for the women to exchange ideas, problems, and challenges is another highly promising concept. One fruitful initiative which helped me a lot to find my place in science is the Athena group, which we founded at our institute to promote women in our field. Informal exchange and mentoring helps to overcome challenges during difficult times and shows every one of us that we’re not the only one who struggles.

About Ulrike Böhm

Ulrike Boehm is a physicist and science enthusiast. She works as a research specialist at the Advanced Imaging Center at the HHMI Janelia Research Campus in the United States. She did her PhD studies at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen in the Department of NanoBiophotonics of Nobel Laureate Stefan Hell. She loves to develop and build tools to image, probe and manipulate biological structures. Furthermore, she is passionate about science communication and open science and is a huge advocate for women in science.

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