Sandra Luber: ‘Trying out things is completely fine’

27.7.2020 | A career path doesn’t always have to be straight. Professor Sandra Luber, theoretical chemist from the University of Zurich, is proof that even if you come to your field in a round-about way, you can succeed—as her numerous awards attest to. What would she say to a young researcher now? It pays to stick to the things that interest you.
Prof Sandra Luber
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(© Alessandro Della Bella)

Prof Sandra Luber

Professor Luber, for the people that don’t know you, how would you describe your work?

My group develops theoretical methods at the interface of chemistry, (bio-)physics, and materials science, with special interest in methods derived from quantum mechanics. One main motivation of my work has been the development of more accurate and/or efficient approaches. For example, usually people use a static picture for a certain chemical compound for which calculations are carried out and certain properties are investigated.

But this is quite approximate so we have been working on moving towards a more realistic, dynamic description based on accurate computational methods. These days, for example, we are really good at room temperature—the calculations are not just a zero Kelvin anymore—and we can include environment effects, in this way facilitating comparison with experiment. Traditionally the simulations in this field were in the gas phase but often chemistry is in the liquid phase or even in the solid state. That is one direction I have been working on for quite some time. I have had also a long-standing interest in novel methods for spectroscopy.

We apply our methods to a broad range of systems. One direction is catalysis, in the last few years in particular solar light to chemical energy conversion. The idea is to capture solar light and use it to split water. You obtain oxygen but also hydrogen, which we want for sustainable energy storage. Here at the university, experimental groups are working with theoretical groups to develop such a water splitting device.

You’ve won several awards for your work, for example you won the Clara Immerwahr prize which is awarded to young women scientists working in catalysis research. You were not only the first theoretician to win it, but so far the only theoretician out of ten recipients. Do you think that has something to do with additional barriers to women in theoretical chemistry?

What I can tell from my experience is that there are fewer female professors on the theory side. For me, this prize was a very nice sign to honour theory and calculations in catalysis which are becoming more and more important now. Catalysis has been a lot about applied research but now we [theorists] can really help with the design. We need to understand the system of interest in detail to have an idea of how you can improve it—you can just do trial and error but in the long term, we should use the insight that calculations can give us and I think that is becoming more and more valued.

You’ve also won the Hans G.A. Hellmann Award and the Robin Hochstrasser Young Investigator Award, both of which you were the first woman to win. Do you think the field is changing and becoming more open to women?

I do have a sense that the field is changing a bit. Young female scientists are coming to the field more and more. There are not so many in the older generation, but there are now these new junior professorships in Switzerland and especially Germany where I see that there are more positions occupied by female scientists.

People might expect for someone who has succeeded as much as you, to have had a very sharp focus on theoretical chemistry from early on, but is that the case? How did you come to the field of quantum chemistry?

It’s funny because when I finished school, in which there was a focus on music and the arts rather than the natural sciences, I had no clue what to do. I was told that, as a woman, I will have children so I should pick a safe job and go work for the government, so I started studying to become an administrative scientist. But I starting feeling bored soon. Thus I decided to study something else, and I thought, let’s do chemistry. I started at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg for a diploma in chemistry. Then I went to ETH Zurich as an exchange student. A professor [Wilfred F. van Gunsteren] encouraged me to stay so I did the BSc/MSc and also PhD there, which was in quantum chemistry.

After that, I still didn’t know what to do, so I chose to switch to bioinformatics for my postdoc [under fellow AcademiaNet member, Mihaela Zavolan] because I found it interesting to try and I thought it would be good for industry. But one or two months later I received an email from [Victor S. Batista at] Yale asking if I would like to join his group for a postdoc. He was working on Photosystem II, which is the complex performing water-splitting in nature. Unfortunately, after about one year, I had to return to Germany from the US due to family reasons. I then decided to become a patent lawyer, but soon I was thinking again, ‘Oh no, am I going to be doing this my whole life?’

So I asked a professor [Jürg Hutter] at the University of Zurich if I could get a position with him for doing the habilitation, and he said that I could start immediately. In the end, because I was never sure what I wanted to do, I tried a lot of things. It’s funny how I got bored so fast. Luckily that’s not happened here at the university—so I’m happy.

What a remarkable journey. How do you think working in all these different disciplines has influenced your work?

It has helped me a lot. It is about merging all the pieces together which can give you some unique research directions and skills. If you have worked in other fields before and know what’s going on there, you know how people will read your work and what will be exciting to them. And you maybe value your own work more and feel quite lucky, so I have never regretted it.

I think if people do what they are interested in, they will probably also be good in that particular field. When I thought about what to do for my PhD, for instance, I was told that theoretical chemistry wasn’t attractive and it will be difficult to find a job afterwards. That was actually also already the case when I thought about studying chemistry. Luckily, everything worked out really well and one can see nowadays with better computers etc., that this field has become popular and attractive.

Trying out things is completely fine. It worked out for me and I hope it also works out for others.

A great message to end on. Prof. Luber, thank you so much for your insight and for taking the time to speak with us.

  (© Emilie Steinmark / AcademiaNet /
Questions were asked by Emilie Steinmark for AcademiaNet and

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