Professor Thomas JungPortrait
Professor Thomas Jung is a man of many talents. He is an honorary professor at the University of Basel and runs research groups at the Paul Scherrer Institute and the University of Basel. His research activities range from applied research commissioned by various companies, to working with the PSI’s major research facilities, through to basic science. He is fascinated by the concept of making chemistry visible and presenting it in images. However, the 53-year-old physicist never overlooks the people behind all this work. It is his wish to convey the joy of the sciences, embody equal opportunities, and combine family and career to the best possible extent.
Fascinated by the transition between physics and chemistry
Thomas Jung is a scientist through and through. He is fascinated by topics that merge the disciplines of chemistry and physics. He is thrilled by the chance to watch molecules arrange themselves, join together, and condense. For a long time, however, he could not decide whether physics was the right choice for him. After his schooldays, Thomas Jung wavered between studying medicine, mechanical engineering, or physics. What he really wanted to do was research, a factor which favored physics. He was initially a little too intimidated and so he enrolled at the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich to study mechanical engineering. He switched subjects in the first semester and has remained loyal to physics ever since. Still, his studies did not completely eliminate his initial doubts. “It was a real stretch for me,” recalls Thomas Jung. He believes that, above all, he lacked something of the discipline required to study at the ETH. He was pleased that chemistry was also a mandatory subject and that he had the opportunity to study elective subjects such as biophysics, economics, literature, and history. Yet he didn’t always have the motivation for the things he was actually supposed to learn. This promptly changed when he began his Master’s thesis on photoemission in 1987. “That was the first time that I really enjoyed myself because I could create something new,” notes Thomas Jung.
New microscopes lead to Basel
It was during this time that Thomas Jung first became aware of the newly developed scanning tunneling microscopes, something that interested him immediately. Professor Hans-Christian Siegmann, his supervisor at the ETH, recommended that he apply to Professor Güntherodt in Basel. Hans-Joachim Güntherodt found a doctoral position for Thomas Jung and presented him with the challenging task of developing a low-temperature atomic force microscope (AFM) that could be used to measure the Meissner effect (the Meissner effect refers to the characteristic of superconductors to completely expel an externally applied magnetic field). Thomas Jung completed his dissertation in 1992. He had constructed a new AFM and laid the groundwork to a large extent. Still, it would be another three years before Professor Hans-Josef Hug was able to use the AFM to successfully measure the Meissner effect as part of his doctoral dissertation.
Measuring molecules for the first time
With his doctoral dissertation, Thomas Jung took his first steps into the world of scanning probe microscopy. At what was then the Paul Scherrer Institute in Zurich (now the CSEM), he introduced colleagues to atomic force microscopy and wrote numerous publications. Doors were opened to various postdoc positions. With three different scholarships under his belt, he opted for the IBM T. J. Watson Research Laboratory in Yorktown Heights NY (USA). After two years in the USA, he moved to the IBM research laboratory in Rüschlikon. “That was the best time,” remembers Thomas Jung. “I measured molecules for the first time and made reactions in test tubes visible.” This allowed Thomas Jung to use his interest in biophysics and combine it with the new microscopy and experimentation technology. “My colleagues liked to joke about my little ‘pet’, the porphyrin,” says Jung with a smile. And he has never lost his passion for mapping chemical processes and examining them in great detail. At the start of the year, he and his team published a paper in “Nature Communications” in which the researchers used images to show how xenon atoms condense in quantum wells.
Research in Basel and at the PSI
In 1997, Thomas Jung left IBM and began conducting research as a group leader at the Paul Scherrer Institute. He has also been managing the nanolab at the University of Basel since 1998. In 2009 he became an honorary professor at the University of Basel. He has research groups in both Villigen and Basel, each with around six colleagues. The PSI team mainly focuses on projects relating to the magnetism of molecules and uses the PSI’s major research facilities in their work. The group in Basel examines the self-assembly of molecules and the condensation of atoms. The two groups often receive commissions from industrial companies. Surface analysis and coatings are the most common topics here. Thomas Jung is also regularly involved in Argovia and SNI PhD School projects as Principle Investogator (PI) or Co-PI. When recruiting for new projects, Thomas Jung puts the person before their grades. “For me, brains count for more than grades,” he comments. He therefore also strives to ensure that his colleagues enjoy their work and that the laboratory has a good atmosphere.
Sparking enthusiasm for physics
Thomas Jung’s dedication to his laboratories unites many of his wide-ranging interests. He also feels a real need to teach effectively about physics and interest young people in the “difficult” sciences. During his term as President of the Swiss Physical Society (1999–2002), he co-initiated the Swiss Young Physics Tournament (SYPT), offering Swiss school pupils the opportunity to take part in the International Young Physics Tournament (IYPT). He was also involved when Switzerland hosted the IYPT for the first time in 2005, the “Year of Physics”.
Commitment to family
Thomas Jung’s private life has also taught him how to deal with young people; he has four sons aged between 8 and 20. And because equal opportunities are not just restricted to the workplace, he often cooks for the whole family. He also looks after the two younger boys from late afternoon two days a week. Thomas Jung keeps fit mainly through cycling; it is important to him to occasionally spend an afternoon “popping up” a 3,000-meter mountain. He cycles to work from Thalwil at least once a week. And his family vacations are a little different to those of most other families. For example, he might go camping in Alaska with his parents-in-law, wife, and children, or travel with his family across Ladakh – perfectly combining his love of the mountains, his passion for new discoveries, and his precious, yet often scarce time with his family.