Heidi and Patrick Potts: Everything began with nanoPortrait, SNI INSight December 2021
Heidi and Patrick Potts both began their careers as students of the nanosciences at the University of Basel. After finishing their doctoral dissertations in Lausanne and Geneva, respectively, and completing postdoctoral work in Sweden, they have returned to Basel. Heidi moved into the private sector and is very satisfied in her position as application scientist at Zurich Instruments. Patrick, as assistant professor in the Department of Physics, has also realized his dream of leading his own small research group. Both Heidi and Patrick appreciate the broad education they received during their degree program in the nanosciences as it helped them each to forge their own path – together.
Beginnings in Basel
Patrick Potts began his professional training in 2007, and Heidi Potts followed in 2008. Both had taken an interest in science back in high school, but neither had developed a passion for any specific subject area. That made the bachelor’s program in the nanosciences an ideal fit because students only choose a specialization later in their studies.
After finishing her bachelor’s degree, Heidi knew that this interdisciplinary approach was the right choice for her future career, so she went on to complete her master’s in the nanosciences, as well. With the support of an Argovia Travel Grant, she set out for Toronto to work on her master’s thesis, which ultimately earned her an award for best master’s thesis in the nanosciences in 2014, the very first year the prize was presented. Her winning thesis focused on the topic of cutting-edge, ultra-thin silicon solar cells. She had already developed a fascination for applied research in the field of nanotechnology, and this early interest continued to accompany her as her career progressed.
After finishing his bachelor’s, Patrick was not as certain about the subject he wished to pursue. He completed an internship in biochemistry in Japan. “I was interested in some of the topics in the field, but ultimately I decided against the interdisciplinary nanosciences master’s program and switched to physics. For my master’s thesis, I focused intensively on solid-state physics,” he says.
Yet Patrick certainly does not regret the first few years he spent in the nanosciences program, and he believes he learned a lot of valuable information during his bachelor’s studies in nanosciences that guided his personal development and continues to serve his career today. “In those first few years, I learned to speak the language of physicists, biologists and chemists. And during my time in the nanosciences program I learned a lot about various aspects of thermodynamics. Now, the focus of my research is quantum thermodynamics, and my fascination with the field has its roots in my undergraduate studies,” he comments.
Dissertation in Romandy
After their respective master’s programs, both scientists relocated to Southwestern Switzerland. Heidi completed her dissertation at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne in the research group supervised by Professor Anna Fontcuberta i Morral. There she studied the growth, crystal structure and transport phenomena of nanowires with novel physical properties, conducting her doctoral work in association with NCCR QSIT – Quantum Science and Technology.
Patrick began his doctoral dissertation in the field of theoretical mesoscopic physics at the University of Geneva in the research group supervised by Professor Markus Büttiger, who passed away soon after. With the aid of a Doc.Mobility Grant awarded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), Patrick was able to secure a research stay in Montreal and finally completed his dissertation under Professor Christian Flindt.
Relocation to Sweden as postdocs
After Lausanne and Geneva, the young pair of scientists packed up and shipped out to Sweden – but they would not be making this journey alone. In the space between Heidi’s private and public theses defenses, the two became parents to a baby girl.
“We assumed our postdoctoral positions in Lund on 1 January 2018, just four months after she was born,” recalls Heidi. Sweden offers excellent working conditions for young parents, but it initially proved challenging for Heidi and Patrick to accommodate both the demands of their careers and those of their new family. “It took a lot of flexibility on the part of our supervisors – and for us, too – but we managed well during those early days,” says Patrick. “Once everything is sorted out, the conditions in Sweden are ideal for achieving a balance between family and work,” he adds. For the Potts family – which would soon expand to include a second daughter – this family-friendly setting, along with an enjoyable work environment, great colleagues and growing circle of friends, filled the 3 ½ wonderful years they spent in Sweden with a host of happy memories.
Back to Switzerland
But old friends, family and their love of the mountains eventually beckoned their return to Switzerland, and the pair settled in Basel, where Heidi and Patrick had begun their studies so many years ago.
For Heidi, this move offered the ideal opportunity to move into the private sector, where she would be able to work in applied research in the field of testing and measurement systems. As for Patrick, he was presented with the unique chance to take on a position as assistant professor and establish his own small research group. He applied for an Eccellenza Professorial Fellowship at the SNSF, and after being awarded the position, began his research in the Department of Physics at the University of Basel in mid-April 2021. He now leads a team of two doctoral students and two postdocs. Together, the theoretical physicists study the thermodynamic effects of quantum systems.
“I am fascinated by the work being done at the interface between quantum physics and thermodynamics,” he says. “It’s a dream come true to head my own group and to have the chance to research things such as how to control, manipulate or use the flow of heat in small quantum systems.” Patrick loves diving deep into a subject area, or in his words, becoming a “hyperspecialist” and collaborating with colleagues from his department.
Heidi was not drawn to the idea of remaining in academic research. She had always been interested in applied science, so she decided to use this opportunity to try and make the leap to the private sector. “The difficult part was finding out what kinds of jobs were a good match for my background and my interests,” she explains.
Early in this orientation phase, she stumbled upon a job offer from Zurich Instruments for a position as an application scientist. The position in the ad was not an exact fit for Heidi’s skills, but applying gave her a chance to introduce herself at the company. “They told me to be in touch again in November 2020, and following the interview process, they offered me a position as an application scientist quite quickly,” she says.
So, the Potts family has now returned to Switzerland. They are settled in nicely and are pleased to be closer to friends and family, and they have also scheduled time to care for their two daughters. Compared to Sweden, the longer working hours in Switzerland make it much harder to strike a balance between personal and professional responsibilities. But both Heidi and Patrick have reduced their work hours and found a way to make time for both their employers and their family.
Always a place for nanoscience
For these two young scientists, their shared path began in Basel with a bachelor’s in nanosciences. Both emphasize that this program had far more to offer than a broad scientific education. They learned to speak the language of numerous disciplines and gained an understanding of a vast array of research areas. The two came to appreciate the extraordinary sense of camaraderie shared between the students in the program and made lifelong friendships, which, since their return, they now have more time to cultivate.
If she had to choose all over again, Heidi Potts would always opt to study nanosciences. In her current position, where she has contact with customers from widely divergent fields, her broad education has served her well. But even Patrick Potts, who fell in love with physics after his bachelor’s, would choose nanosciences again, given the chance. “Not necessarily for my career,” he says. “It’s just extremely interesting to be able to explore and get to know so many different fields.”
Alumni video, Heidi among others talks about the nanosciences programm in Basel