Interdisciplinary network for the future – Andreas Baumgartner has ideas for the SNI PhD School

Andreas Baumgartner has been head of the SNI PhD School since January 2017.

Dr. Andreas Baumgartner has been head of the SNI PhD School since January 2017. His long-term goal is to improve and optimize the exchange of knowledge between the different disciplines in the SNI PhD School in order to make it a source of new, sometimes unconventional ideas. He himself knows very well what interdisciplinarity means, having studied interdisciplinary sciences at ETH Zurich before completing his doctorate in nanophysics in the research group led by Professor Klaus Ensslin (ETH Zurich). The SNI PhD School is to be seen not only as a source of financing but also as a network that continues to be used after the training or the end of a project.

Community for interdisciplinary exchange
At the beginning of 2017, Dr. Andreas Baumgartner took over the headship of the SNI PhD School from his predecessor Dr. Michel Calame, who now heads a research group for nanoscale transport phenomena at Empa in Dübendorf. During the last few months, Andreas has been busy calling for proposals and promoting the seven new doctoral projects, for which applications can be submitted until the end of the year. In the coming weeks, he would like to create clearer structures for the PhD School so that all doctoral students know right from the start what is expected of them at the PhD School.

His long-term vision for the SNI PhD School is to set up an interdisciplinary community, though the individual projects themselves do not necessarily have to be interdisciplinary. The aim would be to boost the doctoral students’ interest in and understanding of topics outside their field of work. “I could imagine, for example, holding workshops where physicists tackle problems originating in molecular biology, or molecular biologists address a chemical issue. Together with existing activities this would enable us to create a community whose members maintain their contacts and continue to exchange know-how even after completing their doctoral dissertations,” he explains. He is not only thinking of the doctoral students themselves here, though. For the participating project leaders, too, the SNI PhD School should not just be a source of funding but also a community fostering the interdisciplinary exchange of information and views.

Curiosity across boundaries
When it comes to interdisciplinarity, Andreas knows what he is talking about. He himself studied interdisciplinary sciences at ETH Zurich from 1995 to 2000, getting to know the entire range of the sciences, from molecular biology, through chemistry to physics. With up to 50 hours of lectures per week, he was able to indulge his curiosity during his years of study, although it was probably not always easy to keep everything in focus with such a wide variety of subjects. Towards the end of his degree course, it was solid-state physics and in particular superconductivity that interested Andreas most, and this was the field he dealt with more intensively in his diploma thesis. For his doctoral studies, he then switched to the research group led by Professor Klaus Ensslin (ETH). That was where he first came into contact with the nanosciences and the NCCR Nano. “One of my first conferences was a meeting of the NCCR Nano in Pontresina,” Andreas recalls. Back then he probably did not think that he would be working for the successor organization of the NCCR Nano today.

Fascinating nanophysics
He remained true to nanophysics when he moved to the University of Nottingham (UK) to take up a post-doctoral position, where he conducted optical experiments with quantum dots in semi-conductors. After spending three years as a postdoc in England, in 2009 he decided to return to Switzerland as his wife had been offered an interesting job here. Christian Schönenberger was looking for a postdoc at that time, and that is how Andreas found his way to the Department of Physics at the University of Basel. His research focus switched to carbon nanotubes and semi-conducting nanowires in electric circuits with superconductors.

This year, he began to set up his own research group. The first step has been taken. Thanks to the decision made by the selection committee for PhD projects at the SNI, he is now supervising a doctoral dissertation project for the first time. For this, the future PhD student is to examine two-dimensional semi-conductors. “I hope to obtain further funding in the near future so that I can give my research a new direction,” he explains.

Enthusiasm for research
When talking about research, the 42-year-old physicist’s eyes light up. “Discovering new things time after time, experiencing eureka moments when you’ve really understood something – those are the things that motivate me personally,” he tells us. It is moments like that which have kept him at the university and in academic research. In addition, he values the flexibility he has in Christian Schönenberger’s group. “That enables me to reconcile my life as a researcher with my family life.”

So when Andreas is not sitting at his computer, discussing something with other researchers or working in the lab, he spends as much time as possible with his wife and two children. He goes hiking with them, pursues his interests in history and philosophy or reads stories with his children. But even in his leisure time he cannot get physics out of his mind, as there is a lot to listen to and explain when, despite the lack of time early in the morning, his five-year-old son observes the eddies that form when he stirs his cocoa, or his eight-year-old daughter describes the principles of thermodynamics to him using her own, not particularly scientific words.