Woman Scientist of the Month: Petra Rudolf (03/2020)

In regular intervals, EPWS interviews a distinguished woman scientist in 10 questions.

In this section, we are interviewing European women of various ages and disciplines, recognized by the scientific community for their achievements, who are also concerned by the gender-equality goals of EPWS. They are true role models and a source of inspiration for the future for other women scientists.

Read all the Interviews here

This month EPWS gives the floor to Prof. Petra Rudolf, Solid State physicist, Professor at the Zernike Institute for Advanced Materials, University of Groningen, The Netherlands. She is the current President of the European Physical Society, a long-standing EPWS Associate member.


Photography by Sylvia Germes

Contact: p.rudolf@rug.nl


EPWS: What made you want to go to science? How did you decide to choose your discipline and your particular field of research? Did you have an inspiring model (parent, relative, teacher, literature, etc.)?

I have always been interested in nature from when I was a little girl, recognizing plants or footprints of animals in the snow, observing black grouses in their courtship ritual or raising orphaned hedgehogs. I first realized that what you see in nature can be explained by models, when my 4th grade elementary school teacher made us look out of the window at the hills that characterize the Bavarian landscape and then showed us, with his arm representing a glacier in a box full of sand, how these hills had been formed. In my perception, I took the decision to study physics when standing in front of the registration office of the University La Sapienza in Rome, but my high school classmates tell me that they knew I would become a physicist long before. In my second year of university I was fascinated by the PhD supervisor of my then boy-friend and I decided already at that time that I wanted to become a professor in condensed matter physics. The choice for surface science came later when I was awarded a research fellowship to work at the TASC National lab in Trieste in 1987. My engagement for women in science was stimulated by Millie Dresselhaus, who always tried to meet up with young female physicists wherever she gave a talk.


EPWS: What do you work on? How important is your research topic for science development or society?

My research group pursues three lines, one on basic properties of thin films – there we are currently looking at the electronic properties of two-dimensional crystals and at materials, which might be suitable for neuromorphic computing; a second one on molecular motors and switches on surfaces, which is also purely curiosity driven; and a third one on layered materials. The latter is the most application-oriented line, for example we just published a paper about a pillared clay we made, which can eliminate herbicide residues from water.


Andre Geim, Cristiane de Morais Smith, Donna Strickland and Prof. Petra Rudolf after the Nobel dinner


EPWS: What is your greatest success as a researcher (and as a teacher if you teach), the one you are most proud of?
Could you share the memory of a great personal satisfaction during your research career with us?

I do not see one particular discovery as the greatest success and my great moments of happiness are every time when, after sitting together with my students and/or collaborators and discussing new results, after a few hours we finally understand what the data mean and at the same time we realise that we are the first people in the world, who have understood that particular property of a certain material. This is really a great sensation and worth all the frustrations you have to overcome when experiments don’t work the way you thought, equipment breaks or your funding application does not get approved.

My greatest satisfaction comes from the careers of the students I have had the privilege to supervise in my group: seeing them now as dean in a South American University, professor in Spain, an inspiring high school teacher or leading an innovation department in a big company fills me with pride.


Prof. Petra Rudolf at the Electron Energy Loss spectrometer, photo by Reyer Boxem


EPWS:In which country/countries have you been doing research?

I started out in Italy, where I also did my physics studies; from there I went to AT&T Bell Labs, USA, where I was responsible not only for my own research but also took care of the users of Bell Labs’ Dragon Beamline at the National Synchrotron Light Source at Brookhaven National Lab. I returned for a short period to Trieste, Italy, but the job market there was not very good at the time and no longer term employment was in sight. So I accepted an offer from the University of Namur in Belgium, where I worked for 10 years and where I also became the first female president of the Belgian Physical Society. 17 years ago I then moved to the Netherlands to take up my chair here at the University of Groningen. Funny enough, I have taught students about physics in 4 different languages, but never in my mother tongue.


EPWS: What is your agenda for the coming months?

An important part of my time will go to research and to my seven PhD students, one postdoc and one master student. There, some highlights will be talking about our results at conferences in Cuba, Australia and Argentina. I really like to give talks: seeing the smile appear on your audience’s faces when they understand your story, gives you a beautiful feeling.

Then there is the European Physical Society (EPS), where we are for example organizing the training of physicists all over Europe in how to speak with policy makers. We also promote career training for young physicists at all EPS-sponsored conferences. A highlight in the next months will be the celebration of 10 years of Young Minds, the project for BSc, MSc, PhD students and postdocs, who organize in sections all over Europe to learn about their professional possibilities as well as to do outreach, and enthuse children for physics. I shall also inaugurate new EPS historic sites, namely places associated with an event, discovery, research or body of work that made important contributions to physics.


Prof. Petra Rudolf at the Electron Energy Loss spectrometer, photo by Reyer Boxem


Did you meet any barriers (personal/social/structural) during your career as a scientific researcher? Did you benefit from mentoring?

Like probably all women of my generation, I have had to endure annoying situations, like a future employer asking me during negotiations of my salary why I insisted on a better pay when I obviously did not need it, given that I was married. Or being told that a male colleague was chosen for promotion despite having performed less well than I had, because he had just married and his wife was expecting a baby. I think these episodes are happening less nowadays, but now female scientists are told that they got certain a job or an invitation for a talk only because they are women. This is a way of implying that they did not deserve them and is therefore very offensive and certainly not true.


What is the situation of gender equality in your working field? In the countries where you have been working, were there gender equalities policies and did you experience their effects?
What do you suggest for a better implementation of gender equality in science?

In physics the number of female researchers varies among countries – in Italy where I studied, it is considered perfectly normal for a girl to do physics, while in Belgium and in the Netherlands girls are discouraged by their (mostly male) school teachers to undertake studies in the “hard” sciences.

I think the difference in Italy is linked to the large percentage of women who work, and those who love science often decide to go into teaching. Hence at high school there are many female science and math teachers and no Italian girl will get the idea that these disciplines are mainly for boys. Instead in the Netherlands the large majority of science and math teachers are men. Moreover there is still the idea that it is bad for the children if their mother works full time; but on the other hand a study of promotions in the Dutch academic world showed that women who work part time are considered less ambitious and therefore less often chosen for a position or promoted.

Now all Dutch universities try to increase their percentages of female professors, even with very drastic measures: the TU Eindhoven opens all positions first only to women and only if after 6 months no suitable woman could be found, a man can be hired. My own university has started the Rosalind Franklin Fellowship program in 2002 within which, in seven different selection rounds, a total of 109 female tenure track assistant professors were hired on a career track, which foresees promotion to associate professor and full professor when satisfying certain criteria. In the Faculty of Science and Engineering, 35 Rosalind Franklin Fellows were hired, which importantly contributed to the fact that we have gone from 3 professors in 2002 (4%) to 21 in 2019 (19%).


Prof. Petra Rudolf at the Photoemission spectrometer, photo by Elmer Spaargaren, photographer of Groningen University


Did you experience networking between women scientists? Can you comment your answer and explain why yes or not?

Of course there is networking among women scientists, like among our male colleagues and in mixed groups. I think an important aspect is to advise each other on professional decisions and give each other suggestions on how to deal with difficult situations, but we also propose each other for invited talks, make each other aware of career opportunities, nominate each other for prizes and distinctions and celebrate our successes. Talking only among women is sometimes very important because some situations are lived/experienced differently by men and women.


If you could start again your life, would you choose again to be a scientist? What would you change?

Yes, I would do it again and I would not change a thing. However, I would have preferred if somewhere in my schooling and upbringing I had been better prepared to deal with the envy of colleagues. I always thought that if I don’t take anything away from anyone, people would only appreciate what I do and I really did not put envy into the equation.


Could you leave a message to young European women scientists?

My first message is “Choose your partner well” – a successful career is something that is difficult to do all on your own; a good partner who supports you and whom you support is very important to be able to cope with the inevitable difficult moments in professional and private life that you will encounter.

Secondly: “If you have chosen a partner who does the same thing as you do, diversify as soon as possible” – more than half of German women physicists are married to a physicist, while only 9% of the men are in the same situation. If both partners do the same thing this limits enormously where you can apply for jobs. If both have academic careers, they will have to move to places where there is more than one university because hardly any university can afford two chairs in the same domain. Life is much easier if you have a partner who has a profession that can be done in many countries and that is different from yours – I chose to share my life with an artist, a painter.



Favourite Links

Data and Statistics regarding Women in STEM – RESOURCES | WiTEC EU:

Gender Gap in Science Website:

Gender Gap in Science Report:

Downloadable STEM Role Models Posters Celebrate Women Innovators As Illustrated By Women Artists:

Dance your PhD:

List of science and technology awards for women – Wikipedia: