Interview

"It would be nice if there were more of us!"

AcademiaNet interview with Nicola Spaldin, Professor and Chair of Materials Theory at ETH Zürich

25.5.2016 | Nicola Spaldin about multiferroics, leadership, women in science and her passion for being a university professor.
AcademiaNet: You have the unchallenged status as being 'the' expert for multiferroics – could you please tell us briefly what was the state of science and technology in multiferroics before your breaktrough?

Prof. Nicola Spaldin
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Prof. Nicola Spaldin
Prof. Nicola Spaldin: Multiferroics are materials that combine ferromagnetism and ferroelectricity together in the same phase. There are many materials that show one or the other properties, but the material chemistries of ordinary ferromagnets, such as metallic iron, tend to be very different from typical ferroelectrics, for example ceramic barium titanate. My group's work provided background understanding into why the kinds of chemistries that are good for making ferromagnets are bad for making ferroelectrics and vice versa – we set out to answer the question "Why are there so few magnetic ferroelectrics?"

As soon as we had the answer to that question, we were able to propose ways around what we called the 'contraindication' between ferromagnetism and ferroelectrity and to design new multiferroic materials.

What is the missing link between theoretical possibilities and application maturity?

A material that is simultaneously magnetic and ferroelectric and, more importantly, has a coupling between the two functionalities, is appealing technologically, because one can control the magnetic properties with an electric field and conversely the electrical properties with a magnetic field. The latter is being explored for medical applications in which one would like to use a remote magnetic field to access an implanted electrical device without needing physical connections such as wires into the body. The former has potential for storage and communication technologies, because electric fields can be generated with smaller components that use less power than those needed to generate magnetic fields.

Of course there are many reasons, not all of them scientific, why new materials with new functionalities -- particularly those that are disruptive to existing technologies -- might not find applications. For multiferroics, I would say that the main fundamental scientific challenges are finding ways to strengthen the interactions to achieve room-temperature operation, and controlling the defect chemistry to achieve sufficiently low levels of impurities. After that there will be many device physics challenges, ranging from development of new functional paradigms to ensuring compatibility with silicon architectures.

You like teaching, team-meetings, scientific exchange, and you have to guide your team: do you have a favourite leadership motto?

I like to think that I am still an active scientific collaborator with my group members rather than their 'boss', although this is certainly harder to maintain as one becomes more senior with increasing travel and administrative demands. I work hard to foster an atmosphere of constructive collaboration within the research group and to create an environment where the group members have room to develop their creativity and explore their own ideas, as well as following mine. Of course I have more experience than the junior researchers, as well as an obligation to the Swiss tax payers, who have entrusted me to define the overall research direction. Maybe the closest analogy is to an orchestra conductor – I work with a group of talented young colleagues with a diversity of skills, interests and aspirations, and my role is to coordinate and motivate them and to nudge them collectively in the direction that I find most compelling.

The ETH Zürich is well-known for excellent female researchers: is this a result of the university's policy, or just a normality?

Personally I have found the ETH to be unusually progressive regarding dual careers: my husband is also an Engineering Professor, and from the beginning of the recruitment process, the heads of both of our departments were extraordinarily proactive in ensuring that two positions would be available. It's a pleasure to be surrounded by outstanding women scientists and leaders here: my colleague in the Physics Department, Felicitas Pauss, for example, who is an internationally renowned particle physicist and a leader in the CMS collaboration at CERN, and our rector Sarah Springman, who is among the most influential leaders in Switzerland in higher education matters. As in most science and engineering environments, though, it would be nice if there were more of us! While my own group is gender balanced, this is not generally the case throughout the ETH.

What did you want to become when you were a child?

As I child I thought I might become a medical doctor as I enjoyed mathematics and sciences in school, and that was the only work I really knew about at the time that seemed to use those skills. I am also an active musician and considered quite seriously playing full-time. As soon as I discovered science research though, and realized there was a career path that allowed one to combine research with teaching, it was clear that being a university professor was my dream job.

Dear Mrs. Spaldin, thank you very much for this interesting interview.

Interview: Stephanie Hanel

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