A passion for nano research – Martino Poggio to become new SNI DirectorPortrait, SNI INSIght June 2022
The SNI is a diverse institute, and Argovia Professor Martino Poggio is also characterized by his diverse background — whether it be as a passionate researcher and visionary research manager or in terms of his cultural origins. He came to the University of Basel from the USA in 2009 as an Argovia Assistant Professor and is now set to take over as director of the SNI from Professor Christian Schönenberger in August 2022.
Influenced by science
Martino Poggio was born in 1978 in Tübingen, Germany, but grew up in the USA — specifically in Boston, Massachusetts — in an environment that was heavily influenced by science and research. His father was, and still is, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and science was an everyday part of Poggio’s life when he was growing up.
In his childhood and teenage years, he developed an interest in IT and computer programming. He was always brimming with questions about all kinds of subjects — and a physics degree seemed to be the best way to find answers to some of these questions.
He began studying physics at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA, and — as is customary for students there — looked for a summer job in one of the laboratories during his bachelor’s studies. “I still clearly remember my work with Professor Mara Prentiss, which involved building a laser for atomic physics experiments. It was quite challenging, but it was a great feeling when it worked. That’s when I realized it was important for me to do something with my own hands and see the effects for myself — and that’s remained the case throughout my career,” he says.
A move to the West Coast
At the end of his degree and after countless hours of work in the Prentiss Lab, Poggio was looking for a fresh challenge outside Boston. The unique flair of Santa Barbara, California, seemed to offer a welcome change, and so he applied for a summer position with Professor David Awschalom (who was also a reviewer for the NCCR Nano at the time) at the University of California in Santa Barbara. He must have done a great job, for Awschalom subsequently offered him a place to come back the following year to do his doctoral dissertation.
That is how Poggio came to do his dissertation on the topic of ultrafast optics and semiconductor spintronics. “I found this work fascinating, but I was always dealing with several thousand spins and measuring large effects,” Poggio recalls. “That’s when I realized that I found the development of more sensitive tools even more interesting.”
Interested in sensitive measurements
He acquired the necessary knowledge while working as a postdoctoral student in Dr. Dan Rugar’s laboratory at the IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California, from 2005 to 2008. “Dan had managed to measure a single spin using magnetic resonance force microscopy,” Poggio explains. “My work in his group therefore taught me many of the basic principles for my current research, which aims to develop sensitive measuring techniques.”
The results of his research work in California were outstanding, and Poggio saw the opportunity to become an assistant professor and set up his own group — which he had dreamed about since he was a young boy. He applied to various positions, including one in Basel, as he’d heard about the Argovia Professorship advertised by the newly founded SNI at the University of Basel by chance.
A big step
“In the end, I had to choose between Minnesota, Pittsburg and Basel,” Poggio recalls. Whereas his American colleagues would never have considered moving to Switzerland, Poggio was very open to the idea on account of his Italian roots and existing family connections with Europe. With this in mind, he accepted the offer — which was the best of the three options — to set up a world-class research group.
Poggio has never regretted his move from the USA to Europe. “Although the start-up capital is slightly less than it would have been in the USA, there’s ongoing financial support that has helped me to set up my group,” he says. From the outset, he was impressed by the quality of the equipment and by the excellent workshops operated by the Department of Physics at the University of Basel. Another key factor for him in Basel was the wealth of experience and knowledge in the area of scanning probe microscopy thanks to pioneers and experts such as Hans-Joachim Güntherodt, Christoph Gerber, Christian Schönenberger and Ernst Meyer. In particular, Poggio also values the quality of education and the level of students’ knowledge here in Basel.
While setting up his research group, which has now grown to 17 members, he received crucial support in the form of various grants, such as an ERC Starting Grant, and the opportunity to lead an FET Open project.
Mechanics, magnetism and images on the nanoscale
Together with his team, Poggio has focused on research in the areas of nanomechanics, nanomagnetism and nano imaging. A common feature of all three areas is that they involve the development of highly sensitive sensors and devices for investigating fundamental physical phenomena.
In nanomechanics, the researchers from the Poggio Lab measure tiny forces, spins or charges using not only significantly smaller (top-down) devices but also self-assembled (bottom-up) structures. Tiny magnetic fields from individual nanoscale magnets are analyzed using new magnetometers that are also being developed by the Poggio Lab. In this work, the researchers focus on the magnetism of low-dimensional systems in order to gain a better understanding of their magnetic configuration. In the third area of research at the Poggio Lab, the scientists are working on various scanning probe microscopy methods with a view to making this technique even more sensitive and carrying out localized measurements on nano-objects.
It is these topics and the associated lab work that fascinate Poggio the most. “It’s clear, however, that I’ll be taking on more responsibility and managerial tasks in my position,” he explains. Poggio previously served as chair of the Department of Physics from 2019 to 2021 and is co-director of the NCCR Quantum Science and Technology (QSIT).
Now, he is to assume the role of SNI Director and therefore the management of the interdisciplinary network from 1 August 2022 onward. “I have a lot to thank the SNI for, and it’s time to give something back,” he says when asked why he is keen to take on the job of SNI Director. “What’s more, the nanoscience research supported by the SNI is a subject that’s very close to my heart.”
Visibility and growth
For Poggio, the SNI represents an ideal combination of excellence and breadth, providing support for a varied and exciting project portfolio. “The diverse profile of network partners, including universities and major research institutions, paves the way for different approaches and a wide variety of projects,” he says.
Poggio also praises the broad education that students receive as part of the nanosciences curriculum: “I would have been interested in a program like this back in my day, as it would have provided me with answers to many of my questions.”
With regard to the future of the SNI, Poggio hopes that its unique atmosphere will endure and that both the Canton of Aargau and the University of Basel will continue to provide generous support to the network. He also sees the SNI becoming bigger and enjoying greater visibility in the future. “There are several large nanoscience centers in the world, and I see no reason why Basel shouldn’t be one of them. Some excellent work was done here in setting up the NCCR Nano, and this work is now being carried forward by the SNI.”
One of the basic prerequisites for growth of the kind imagined by Poggio would be for the SNI to have its own building. This objective has already been pursued by Hans-Joachim Güntherodt and Christian Schönenberger — but the decision doesn’t lie in the hands of the SNI Director.
In any case, the establishment of the Nanotechnology Center brings together the well-established Nano Imaging Lab and the recently founded Nano Fabrication Lab under one roof and is a step in the right direction when it comes to expanding the SNI, offering additional services, and making the institute fit for the future.