Halle’s Physicists on a Pathway to Success

26.04.2018 von Tom Leonhardt in Featured, Research
Knowledge transfer is only successful when it is coupled with excellent basic research. The staff at the Institute of Physics are doing just that. The institute is not only home to three collaborative research centres (CRC) of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) and one Alexander von Humboldt professorship. Its researchers have excellent international ties and have regularly attracted notice through articles published in renowned journals.
Thomas Thurn-Albrecht, Ingrid Mertig and Georg Woltersdorf (from left to right) head three collaborative research centres at the Institute of Physics.
Thomas Thurn-Albrecht, Ingrid Mertig and Georg Woltersdorf (from left to right) head three collaborative research centres at the Institute of Physics. (Foto: Michael Deutsch)

Professor Ingrid Mertig, Professor Thomas Thurn-Albrecht and Professor Georg Woltersdorf are seated cheerfully together in an office at the Institute of Physics. They have a lot to talk about: joint projects, upcoming and past business trips and promising students attending in their lectures. Regular discussions are a routine part of the physicists’ day. “The trademark of our institute is that we work often and, above all, well with one another,” Ingrid Mertig concludes. Both of her colleagues nod in agreement.

What the three scientists have in common is that they are all spokespeople or deputy spokespeople for one of the three collaborative research centres funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft at the Institute of Physics. Mertig has headed CRC 762 “Functionality of Oxide Interfaces” since 2008. Thomas Thurn-Albrecht is the spokesperson for CRC/Transregio 102 “Polymers under Multiple Constraints”, which was established in cooperation with the University of Leipzig in 2011. And last year Georg Woltersdorf successfully obtained funding for the new CRC/Transregio 227 “Ultrafast Spin Dynamics” in partnership with Freie Universität Berlin.

All three initiatives are embedded in the university’s core scientific research area “Material Sciences – Nanostructured Materials” which investigates the development of novel materials and innovative measuring methods. The Centre for Innovation Competence “SiLi-nano”, financed by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, is also located here.

A Strong Network

There is a long history of success at the Physics Institute. “Oxide interfaces, polymer physics and photovoltaics have been the core research areas of our institute for many years,” explains Mertig. She points to the non-university partners on site that have strong research capabilities: the Max Planck Institute for Microstructure Physics (MPI), the Fraunhofer Institute for Microstructure of Materials and Systems IMWS and the Fraunhofer Centre for Silicon Photovoltaics. “A lot of what we have achieved today would not be possible without the cooperation with our non-university partners.”

When Mertig was appointed professor of quantum theory of the solid state in 2001, many professors at her institute in Halle had just retired or were close to retirement. “That was a good opportunity to further raise the institute’s profile,” the physicist recalls. Together with colleagues, she developed a new research profile for the institute. Research focused on solid state materials and polymers, while other activities were put on hold. The vacant professorships were to be developed accordingly and strategically filled by promising researchers.  

“Our guiding principle is the establishment of core groups in Halle in order to attract further projects,” explains Thomas Thurn-Albrecht, a professor of polymer physics in Halle since 2003. This network is a strong asset of the physics institute that, with 14 professors, is otherwise rather small. Often various groups share research equipment. This strengthens scientific exchange and fosters collaboration, which, in an ideal case, results in the successful funding of projects.

Georg Woltersdorf, who is a prime example of the strategic appointment process, has been nurturing the latest success. After the assessment of CRC 762 it became apparent that the research profile in Halle could profit from the addition of ultrafast dynamics – Woltersdorf’s speciality. In 2013 Woltersdorf was appointed professor of optics in Halle. Just four years later, the researcher was able to obtain funding for a new CRC in collaboration with Freie Universität Berlin. The subject: ultrafast spin dynamics.

Physics in Halle Draws International Attention

Halle’s Institute of Physics has made an international name for itself – both as a location for international conferences and as a host institute of highly regarded guest researchers. In partnership with MPI, its physicists were able to attract to Halle Professor Stuart Parkin, the inventor of modern hard drive technology, through an Alexander von Humboldt professorship – Germany’s most highly endowed international research award. French Nobel Laureate in physics, Professor Albert Fert has also been a guest of the institute since 2014. And just a few weeks ago, Dr Manuel Bibes from the renowned Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) Thales received the Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel Research Award from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, which allows him to work for several months in Halle.

Despite their many successes the three professors remain unassuming. “We are always en route,” says Thomas Thurn-Albrecht, referring to two more topics that are near and dear to him: teaching and junior scientists. “It’s a pleasure to be able to share creative moments during my work with highly talented young people,” adds Mertig. The institute is well-placed in terms of PhD positions thanks to the CRC funding. One sticking point, however, is the lack of permanent positions at the institute and at the university as a whole once students finish their PhD studies. “It hurts to lose excellent colleagues because we are unable to offer them reliable prospects,” says Woltersdorf. Here the three researchers see an area for improvement in the future.

They will continue to work on the profile of their institute in the future even though it takes time and effort. Georg Woltersdorf’s face lights up when he explains how the small physics institute in Halle is able to selectively contribute to top international research. “This kind of success is fun!”


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