WelcomePublished on 02.12.2022

"We should not forget that research should be curiosity driven"

Since September 2022, Michael Schüler has been a Professor at the Department of Physics of the University of Fribourg and the Paul Scherrer Institute. Interview

What lead you to choose our University for your laboratory/research?

After finishing my PhD at the Martin-Luther University in my home town of Halle, I moved to the University of Fribourg for my first postdoc. I have very fond memories of that time. Fribourg and the surrounding area with its unique beauty are very special to me.

After returning to Switzerland from Stanford University with an Ambizione grant, I got to work at the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI). Since I really enjoy collaborating with colleagues who perform experiments, PSI with its large-scale facilities is a great place for my research. The joint position between PSI and the University of Fribourg that I started recently combines the best of both worlds. Also, the Department of physics at the University is small but has a research focus that aligns very well with my interests. The professors are not only experts in a related field, but great colleagues as well.

Tell us about your research. What is your research focus and what are your objectives?

What I’m really interested in is trying to bridge this gap between theory and experiments in materials research. I’m trying to understand what we can learn from quantum materials by spectroscopy. Quantum materials have many microscopic properties that manifest on macroscopic scale. How and why that happens is often very complicated, in particular because of the many quantum mechanical degrees of freedom. 

Spectroscopies can help to disentangle the microscopic properties — if we understand them well enough. Photoemission spectroscopy is one of the most powerful methods. While being an old technique, a detailed understanding of how to connect the measured signal to aspects of the quantum mechanical wave-function in materials has not been possible. This is what we are going to tackle in my group: trying to connect quantum properties and possible experimental signatures.

Another idea in the field is to disentangle the microscopic degrees of freedom in the time domain. There are many interesting developments related to ultra-fast spectroscopy, and great opportunities to collaborate within the department, both on the theory and the experimental side.

As a more general question, I’m wondering how we can measure microscopic quantum properties in materials that are hidden, not really accessible, but, in a way, we can still think about smart ways to interrogate matter. In particular I think that understanding the implications of quantum geometry — which is fundamental to the way light couples to materials — is something that’s becoming more and more important for material design. 

Why did you choose your field as a career?

There are many good reasons. Ultimately, you get to play with stuff to figure out new ideas and get to the bottom of unsolved problems. There are so many open questions and I just really like the way we as scientists get to approach this. Certainly, with our thorough education and years of experience we approach questions in a guided way — but still we should not forget that research should be curiosity driven.
This is something that the school system sometimes tries to streamline a little bit, thinking that everything has to be efficient, but, in the end, we should also not forget that you need creativity and a bit of a playful approach to make discoveries.

And, of course, the other big aspect that I really appreciate, is just how communicative the work actually is. This is maybe something that is not so well known for the general public – we actually meet a lot, talk to colleagues in the field to exchange ideas. It’s very open and I find that really inspiring.

What is your teaching philosophy? What message would you like to share with students?

Passing on the knowledge and skills I have acquired over the years is an important cornerstone of scholarly work; I consider it a privilege (and a lot of fun). Effective teaching can pave the way for the next generation of scientists, thinkers and problem solvers, thus supporting the scientific community and society as a whole. Furthermore, one should never forget that teaching means learning too. The vivid exchange with students often provides fresh points of view. From my experiences I believe teaching should be multi-tiered, so that all groups of students get as much out of the classes as possible. Ultimately, I hope I can convey enthusiasm for physics and creative scientific thinking in general.

On December 21st at 16:50, Michael Schüler will give his inaugural lecture on "Understanding and manipulating quantum materials with light" at the Department of Physics. All members of the Faculty and students are cordially invited.