An Excellent and Socially Engaged Researcher

2015-10-151006105142-DSC03194_FotorPeter Rickhaus, until recently a doctoral student in Professor Christian Schönenberger’s group, received the Metrology prize from the Swiss Physical Society (SPS) in September for his work on electron transport in graphene. However, the 28-year-old physicist is not just interested in the properties of this highly regarded material; he also has three young children and is actively involved in social projects.

First nano, then physics
Peter Rickhaus was born in Bern and grew up in Laufen. His interest in the diversity of natural sciences led him to study nanosciences in Basel. During his Bachelor’s studies, he found himself particularly drawn to physics topics and fascinated by lectures on quantum mechanics and electrodynamics. “It was new, substantial, and it fascinated me,” Rickhaus recalls. He therefore decided to switch to physics for his Master’s. His Master’s thesis on superconductors brought him to Christian Schönenberger’s group, where he remained for his doctorate. As his successes suggest, this was a very good decision.

Two Nature papers and one SPS award
Back in 2013, Nature Communications accepted the first paper written by Peter Rickhaus and his colleagues in which he was cited as the lead author. This publication described a new method of stretching graphene between two supports and cleaning it. The subsequent measurements showed that electrons move within the graphene film without loss. “Ming-Hao Liu’s simulations at the University of Regensburg confirmed our measurements exactly,” comments Rickhaus. His second Nature Communications paper followed in 2015, in which he and his co-authors demonstrated that the electrons in graphene could be guided along a predefined route. When an electrical field and a magnetic field are combined, the electrons move forward in curved lines. In September, the Swiss Physical Society presented him with its Metrology prize, funded by the Federal Institute of Metrology (METAS), in recognition of this research.

Future still unclear
Peter – who completed his doctorate at the end of September and will remain in the Schönenberger laboratory until the end of the year as a postdoc – is, however, still not certain where his career will take him next. “I’m going to start with a year of community service,” he comments in the interview. He will spend the first half of this period assisting refugees with their applications. “I’m looking forward to doing something so different,” the 28-year-old says.

What will follow is still unclear. “I might miss the university and research so much that I’ll know exactly where I belong.” But he is a little skeptical. Although he finds research fascinating, he realizes that an academic career requires a great willingness to make sacrifices. And with three children aged 1, 3, and 5, Peter Rickhaus is not just thinking of himself, but has to plan with his family in mind, too. “Three years here, five years there, another year somewhere else – that’s not something I’d suggest for school-age children,” he comments. Options he is currently considering include teaching or working for an NGO.

Defining moments in Paraguay
After finishing high school, Peter Rickhaus spent nine months in Paraguay working in a home for former street children. “I experienced some defining moments there and gained an impression of our planet’s global inequalities,” he recalls. You can tell that he genuinely wants to do something to counter this injustice. Up to now, his doctorate and family have taken up all his time. However, he seems to be balancing work and family very well. On this subject, he acknowledges the freedom offered by his doctoral supervisor, Christian Schönenberger, and the excellent teamwork within his research group: “I am extremely grateful to my team. As a father, I am the odd one out. When I needed to get my experiments finished, there was always someone willing to help.”