This month EPWS gives the floor to Professor Stacey Ristinmaa Sörensen. She is Professor at Synchrotron Radiation Research, Lund University, Sweden, and was Pro Vice-Chancellor Research of this university until the end of 2020
Personal page at Lund University
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.)?
Curiosity! I have always been a curious person, and I love trying to find the answers to tough questions. I am also fascinated by what can be achieved with a few equations, some mathematical tools and a good understanding of scientific principles.
My math teacher in school was a big inspiration for me, partly because he taught us great things about geometry and trigonometry, but mainly because he made it fun for everybody in the class, and challenging for each student. In retrospect I realize how difficult that must be, and how lucky I was to have such a great teacher. And my father was a constant source of support, sharing ideas and inspiration on mathematics, asking difficult questions that led to really challenging discussions. I learned that if you don’t have the answer to a problem, that’s fine, but think about how you might solve it, and discuss your ideas on the solution. That discussion, the way you formulate a question and why, is worth as much as the answer, sometimes even more.
I have been fascinated by science as soon as I understood that logic, and some deep understanding of basic principles provides you with the tools to do so many things. This is true of mathematics, but is also the framework for the scientific method, especially in the field of physics.
As a student I worked as a computer programmer and consulting technician, which was a pretty exciting place to be at that time, as the personal computer moved into laboratories and offices. Part of my work brought me into university laboratories to help solve issues with data acquisition. This eventually brought me to the synchrotron laboratory that was to become a huge part of my future. The main purpose of a modern synchrotron is to deliver light to crystallographers for the characterization of band structure or the study quantum well; but I immediately noticed that in this lab you could find all of electromagnetism, a bit of nuclear physics, relativity, atomic physics, thermodynamics, and lots of amazing technology. And scientists working on all of these amazing experiments, in many different fields, often in constellations that crossed subject, university and national borders. I was hooked!
EPWS: What do you work on? How important is your research topic for science development or society?
My research focuses on how light influences the structure of molecules. The basic interaction between light and matter underpins many important technologies, from solar cells and sensors to biological processes such as vision, color adaptation or the production of Vitamin D. I study what happens on the extremely rapid time scale where electronic transitions compete with isomerization or dissociation. The basic physics of processes where electrons are correlated, such as double ionization, are also part of my work
EPWS: What is your greatest success as a researcher (and as a teacher if you teach), the one you are most proud of?
What a great question!
There are many things I am proud of, but one thing which really made a big impact was the result of a team effort over many years. I have been a part of the team that conceived, designed, was granted funding for and finally realized the construction of the brightest source of soft X rays on the planet. The project was based on a new concept for how to optimize the beam of electrons to produce light, where an unprecedented level of coherence was obtained. The MAX IV synchrotron is up and running, the dream was achieved to serve around 1000 scientists annually. Realizing such a project is unusual for a country as small as Sweden, which is sometimes challenging…
Could you share the memory of a great personal satisfaction during your research career with us?
The pride I feel when PhD students I am mentoring create their own identity as scientists, and gains confidence in their ability as researchers. As a supervisor you follow their development, and understand the drive they have to overcome challenges and to find their own future. It is fascinating, but also greatly satisfying.
EPWS: In which country/countries have you been doing research?
The United States, Sweden, Japan, Germany, France, and Brazil, and collaborators come from a great number of countries.
EPWS: What is your agenda for the coming months?
The spring term holds some research and some projects that will push forward the university’s ability to work with digital research data. Much experimental work is on hold for those of us who use large-scale facilities; but with no travel and no new experiments the extra time opens up for deeper investigation into old problems that have been unsolved for a while. So… presently I am involved in writing four papers with different teams of collaborators!
Did you meet any barriers (personal/social/structural) during your career as a scientific researcher? Did you benefit from mentoring?
Yes, I have met barriers, and I am sure that most researchers have similar experiences. It is challenging to move to a new country, both because the unwritten rules are different, networks and collaborators need to be built up and the expectations are not always clearly stated. It can be more difficult to become accepted, and to create trust. But there are many benefits to mobility, you bring new skills and perspectives and an open attitude. This works in both ways, for you as a researcher a more diverse workplace will be more open. It is important to be aware of bias and to have a strategy on how to deal with it, both personally and institutionally.
I have had a few informal mentors, who happened to be there when I needed somebody to provide perspective and advice at a crucial time in my career, and even new opportunities for development. This has been invaluable, and most definitely contributed to my staying in research.
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 the Nordic countries the social support system is well developed, and the conditions for gender equality are relatively good. Probably the best in the world. Despite this there is not a good gender balance among academics in physics. But in Lund there are now quite a few women faculty and there is a good gender balance among PhD students.
Unfortunately many highly talented women choose to leave academia after the postdoc, and there are several reasons for this. One reason is the challenge of having children if support that allows women to focus on their careers during this crucial period is lacking. Another may be related to the disproportionate share of responsibility that many women have at home. And nepotism or bias in hiring can play a role. It is crucial that academic positions are announced openly, and that the recruitment process embraces diversity. It may well be important to realize that many academic women are part of an academic couple, and this creates an additional challenge in finding long-term career situations for two researchers.
Did you experience networking between women scientists? Can you comment your answer and explain why yes or not?
Absolutely! There was a Nordic network for women in physics that was very active 15 years ago, that was very important for bringing up important issues and providing tools and insights for female researchers. The similarities between the Nordic countries in terms of the academic system, the social support systems and focus on legal aspects of equality meant that there are several common denominators among the issues faced by women in academia, and in physics.
Here in Lund there is the network WINGS (Women in Great Science, a long-standing EPWS associate member) of women scientists at the university which provides inspiration, information and opportunities for women at all career stages. And a very friendly atmosphere and plenty of advices.
If you could start again your life, would you choose again to be a scientist? What would you change?
This is a really challenging question!
I have really enjoyed my life in science, the constant challenges, the many colleagues in different places, and the ability to decide what you choose to work on. It is truly a privilege. Perhaps I would have liked to have more confidence in myself, which would have allowed me to spend more time on the things I like to do most, to say no more often!
Could you leave a message to young European women scientists?
Listen to yourself, make your choices based on your own ideas and needs. Listen to others when you need support, from a network of colleagues, good friends and mentors.
She-Figures 2018: https://op.europa.eu/s/o00a