Welcome, Prof. Zobel!


Interfaces and large-scale research: New professor in crystallography

Copyright: © Jürgen Rennecke/Universität Bayreuth

Dear Ms. Zobel,

On July 1, 2021, you will take over the Chair of Crystallography at RWTH Aachen University. What are your plans for the further development of your chair and why did you choose Aachen?

I am very pleased that RWTH Aachen University has decided to appoint me to the Institute of Crystallography. There are countless cutting-edge crystallographic challenges ranging from structure-activity correlations in catalysts and energy materials, to nanomaterials, superconductivity, and biological research, where recently neutrons are helping to elucidate the structure of SARS-CoV-2. Not without reason, there have already been more than 20 Nobel Prizes related to crystallography. Many physical, chemical, mechanical or electrical material properties have their origin in defects and deviations from the ideal crystalline arrangement. Every surface and interface represents a defect in this respect, and every catalyst operates with defects. Because the materials to be characterized are becoming more and more complex, I would like to set up the chair with a broad range of methods in order to understand the structure and dynamics of interfaces and nanostructured materials at the highest level. Recent developments in synchrotron radiation and neutron sources, as well as free electron lasers and the development of novel neutron sources (High Brilliance Neutron Source) make crystallography a state-of-the-art discipline that allows unprecedented time-resolved insights into materials. Aachen offers ideal conditions to fully develop the great potential of modern crystallography and to take students on this exciting journey due to the many exciting materials science issues within Faculty 5, but also chemistry, physics or engineering, as well as the proximity to the Research Center Jülich.

You studied chemical and bioengineering at FAU in Erlangen-Nuremberg and subsequently completed your PhD there in 2015 in the Department of Physics on the topic of "Nanoparticle crystallization and solvent interface restructuring especially for ZnO nanoparticles in organic solvents". How did you get into crystallography and what fascinates you about this field?

In the last year of my diploma studies, I attended an elective course on the structural composition of matter out of pure interest, a completely new aspect at that time as an engineer, which fascinated me. I also attended a summer school on nanomaterials, which was led by two proven scattering experts, the Chair of Crystallography and Structural Physics at FAU, Prof. Andreas Magerl, and the Scientific Director of the Research Neutron Source FRM-II, Prof. Winfried Petry. Their enthusiasm tipped the scales in my favor for a PhD position in crystallography - that's where passion won out against the inferior pay compared to engineering. The passion for this subject has remained to this day. However, I use my engineering background in building sample environments, do applied basic research for a better understanding of interfaces, and am always fascinated by the world of large-scale research on measurement trips with my collaborators*.

Since 2017, you have been involved in teaching at the University of Bayreuth and have mainly given lectures in the field of inorganic chemistry. What are your plans for teaching at RWTH? Will you redesign content and subject areas in teaching and what do you expect from your students?

The lecture contents of inorganic solid state chemistry and crystallography overlap in some areas: the structure of crystals, crystal chemistry, X-ray diffraction, but also laboratory practicals on the synthesis of nanocrystals or powder diffraction. It is important to me to give the students a very good and broad basic education independent of my personal research interests, so that they are well equipped to pursue various fields of work afterwards. I continuously incorporate current research topics into the lectures in order to set impulses. Within the framework of SHK activities, internships or theses, interested students also have the opportunity to accompany us directly during measurements at the synchrotron or neutron sources. I hope that students will think critically, constructively and creatively beyond the confines of the textbook, as this is the only way to conduct open discussions and gain new insights.

  Copyright: © Uwe Niklas

You did not take the classic path of a habilitation, but instead followed the path via a W1 junior professorship in "Solid State Chemistry - Mesostructured Materials" at the University of Bayreuth (since 2017) to a W3 professorship at RWTH Aachen University (from 2021). Why did you choose this path and what opportunities do you see in this academic career model?

After my doctorate, I actually wanted to go into industry. But in 2016 there were hardly any positions in research and development there, so it became a postdoc in Denmark after all. Then, six months later, I was unexpectedly approached after a conference presentation and told to apply for the W1 professorship in Bayreuth with my research. Thus, I became a W1 professor with what must have been a rather atypical curriculum vitae for a scientific career at an academically very young age - actually totally unplanned. In my opinion, the advantage of the W1 career model is the better perception by established colleagues beyond one's own location. Whether a classic habilitation, a junior research group or a W1 professorship is the right path is certainly not only a question of type, but also purely a matter of having the right position at the right time and of knowing colleagues* in one's field in order to be well networked at an early stage.

Since your appointment to the junior professorship, you have been supervising doctoral students. What guidelines are important to you in the training of your junior researchers and how do you plan to implement this at your chair?

Encourage and challenge. Every employee and student is individual, with their own strengths. It is important to recognize these and build on them, but also to close some gaps and further develop the young scientists - both professionally and personally. In our research, measuring trips, also internationally, are very important for experiments and it is essential to function as a team, which has worked out very well so far. We also live this team spirit in our everyday work at the university, and my Bayreuth doctoral students and I were warmly welcomed by the existing staff at IfK. Openness, honesty and fairness are very important to me.

How important is experience abroad and the associated networking with foreign colleagues, especially in crystallography? You yourself have some experience as a visiting scientist in France, the USA, Denmark and Australia. To what extent have these stays abroad influenced you and what would you recommend to students or doctoral candidates in this regard?

The scientific career paths in crystallography are not fundamentally different from those of other natural science subjects in terms of the importance of stays abroad. Unfortunately, in my opinion, too much attention is often paid to the formal aspect of experience abroad - even in the case of scholarships. That is why I support students and staff in acquiring appropriate qualifications, e.g. in the context of research internships. My PhD student was at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble for three months last fall, despite Corona restrictions. I myself found it most valuable to learn about different ways of working and to spend inspiring time with colleagues* - preferably over a good dinner. I am now much closer to my favorite travel destination, France, in Aachen.

Thank you for the interview and have a good start in Aachen!