Physicist of the Month

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May 2024

Julia Weratschnig, Astrophysicist at the VEGA Observatory Haus der Natur in Salzburg

© Julia Weratschnig

About myself and my work

I studied physics at the University of Innsbruck and wrote my doctoral thesis in the field of astrophysics. I have been working as a curator/educator for astronomy at Haus der Natur in Salzburg since 2019. As part of my work, I manage the VEGA observatory Haus der Natur, plan and design material for guided tours and workshops and also hold them. I also organize training courses and conferences at the observatory and work as an astronomer in the exhibition planning of space and astronomy-related areas in the museum.

This work is a dream job for me: as an astrophysicist, I am an absolute science nerd and have loved science museums since I was a child - working in one is incredibly enjoyable: I get paid to think about and report on astronomy all day long. In addition, a museum is an incredibly inspiring working environment: you can always learn something new over lunch with colleagues. The most fulfilling are astronomical tours and workshops at the observatory with school classes. It's hard to believe the in-depth questions about astronomy that come from the participants. For me personally, this is an incentive to support and encourage this curiosity as much as I can, as interest in science unfortunately often wanes with increasing age. After a conversation with a ten-year-old girl, hearing “That's so cool, I'd love to become an astronomer myself!” is the best praise for me.

What can be done to achieve more equal opportunities in physics?

What always saddens me is the pride with which some adults claim that they have never liked math and physics and don't understand why anyone would voluntarily study these cultural assets that so often improve our daily lives! I therefore think an important first step is to change this basic attitude of the general public. It seems to me that this rejection has almost been learned: many young children are incredibly inquisitive and never stop learning about dinosaurs, airplanes or black holes.

I am in the fortunate position of being able to “teach” astrophysics without the pressure of grades or performance. Having taught at an AHS for a few years myself, this is actually a big difference: people are much more willing to listen to me here, they dare to ask questions more freely - and I don't have to evaluate or grade anyone. School grades often don't do justice to students' actual effort and often have a demotivating effect. And why should you make an effort if it's normal to be bad at math and physics anyway?

In our workshops with children, on the other hand, I often find that even children you wouldn't expect are suddenly really interested and ask lots of questions. It seems important to me to take all questions seriously and answer them as well as possible. Some questions cannot be answered ("What happens to an atom that falls into a black hole?"). Communicating this fact honestly and saying: “Do you see how good your question is? Many physicists are racking their brains to find an answer to that!” makes children even more curious - and proud. It's not uncommon for me to hear “So if I find the answer, that would be really good?”. In my opinion, there really are no stupid questions! We have school classes with children from migrant backgrounds, special schools and private grammar schools visiting us - you can find great interest and dreams in all these children. First of all, it is important to take this interest seriously and encourage it. When children realize that physics is actually fun, that there are many ways to approach physics and that it is often about often involves simply trying something out, they have more confidence and sometimes really blossom.

Julia Weratschnig is a board member of the Austrian Society for Astronomy and Astrophysics (link), an active member of the Austrian Space Forum (link) and works in national working groups of the International Astronomical Union (link) in the field of public relations and education. If you would like to find out more about her and her research, here is the link to the VEGA Observatory´s website.

April 2024

Susanne Neumann, Physics Teacher and Physics Educator

© Susanne Neumann

About myself and my work

I have been teaching physics at a Viennese secondary school for 20 years now. From the very beginning, it was important to me not only to further develop my own teaching, but also to promote networking between physics teachers. After completing a dissertation in physics education with Prof. Martin Hopf, in which I investigated how we could teach the subject of "radiation" better, I worked in the training and further education of physics teachers. I am currently pursuing my goal of supporting physics teachers through networking as head of the physics teachers' working group. I advise all new teachers to get in touch with the ARGE management in their federal state ( and to attend regular training courses. Many challenges in the first few years are easier to overcome if you work on them together.

What can be done to achieve more equal opportunities in physics?

Physics lessons probably play a central role here. It is our job as physics teachers to design lessons that are relevant to real life and geared towards the interests of ALL students. It is equally important to strengthen the self-concept of our female students in particular. The scientific interests of many schoolgirls are still not sufficiently recognized and encouraged, and many parents do not even consider careers in science and technology for their daughters. We teachers can play a supporting role here by getting as many schoolgirls as possible interested in science and boosting their self-confidence that they can achieve good results in this subject.

Susanne Neumann is deputy chair of the ÖPG working group "Physics and Schools (LHS)".

March 2024

Birgitta Schultze-Bernhardt, University Professor of Experimental Physics at Graz University of Technology

Birgitta Schultze-Bernhardt
© Birgitta Schultze-Bernhardt

About myself and my work

My research focuses on laser spectroscopy, in which I use light-matter interaction to characterize optical properties and physical processes in a wide variety of samples more precisely. In my research group "Coherent Sensing", we use frequency combs that allow high spectral and high temporal resolution. As part of an ERC Starting Grant, we are investigating ultrafast electron dynamics in light-induced processes. On the other hand, we are further developing our methods for atmospheric research via an FWF START project and recently observed the concentration of nitrogen dioxide in the Graz city atmosphere in real time.

What can be done to achieve more equal opportunities in physics?

The establishment of additional scientific positions, such as the women's career positions, also help to further increase the proportion of female scientists in physics. In general, additional offers should ensure more equal opportunities rather than a quota system that curtails existing structures and qualities.  However, certain quotas can also be useful: In joint applications to the FWF, for example, one third of the consortium should belong to the underrepresented gender. This enables new collaborations with female colleagues who might not have been considered due to automatic mechanisms at the faculty. Academic performance should generally not be assessed in relation to age, but in relation to academic age. In this way, the qualifications of mothers or applicants who have had career breaks due to care or nursing periods are assessed more fairly.

From my experience with small children, I know that good and sufficient childcare is an essential prerequisite for being able to work seriously as a scientist with a family. A lot has happened in recent years in terms of reconciling science and family: while 9 years ago I was not allowed to attend a laser conference with a batch and a baby, childcare is now offered at some conferences. From time to time, there is no other option than to take your child to a meeting. In my case, I've only had positive experiences here - it was never a problem at the last three universities I worked at. Perhaps my experience can encourage a colleague to do the same if necessary or in an emergency - hopefully with similarly positive reactions.

Birgitta Schultze-Bernhardt has been a member of the Young Academy of the Austrian Academy of Sciences since 2021 (link). If you would like to find out more about her and her research, here is the link to the institute's website.

February 2024

Santa Pile, Postdoc at the Institute of Semiconductor and Solid State Physics, JKU Linz

Santa Pile
© Santa Pile

About myself and my research

I am at the moment a principal investigator in an independent research project funded by FWF within the ESPRIT program (ESP 4). The focus of the project is put on a fundamental understanding of the dynamic magnetic properties of confined structures, as this is a prerequisite for the development of nanoscale magnonic (spin-wave based) computational devices. As a result of my PhD work it was shown that device’s geometry variation can possibly be used in order to manipulate spin waves. I continue to research that in more detail in the current project. Specifically, I investigate the influence of the device’s shape systematically using experimental and theoretical approach in order to be able to controllably excite and manipulate spin waves in confined structures using simple excitation scheme.

What can be done to achieve more equal opportunities in physics?

It is a very difficult question, as if there is an issue with equal opportunities in physics, that is a consequence of the general inequality in our society. Gender inequality, for example, was formed over several generations, creating a lot of stereotypes and misperception among all genders, which are forced on us starting from a very young age. The task to have equal opportunities, not only for different genders, but as well for people with different physical abilities, of different nationalities and so on and so forth, is quite complex, and should be approached from a lot of angles. Thankfully, a lot is already done in this regard, especially in Austria. I really like, for example, gender studies course which is mandatory at our university. This course really helps to rise an awareness of the topic and makes one think.

What can be done exactly: I think of the highest priority is to change our perception and, when distributing those opportunities, prioritise professional qualities. When talking about the gender, for me personally, in the ideal case scenario, I would prefer if my gender is not emphasised or in any way noticed when at work/school/university, as it should not be relevant. When talking about other limiting factors, which could cause unequal opportunities, I would consider making our research and facilities as accessible as possible for a wider range of people.

If focusing on gender discrimination, here is one of the most obvious examples: at school I was kicked out of Informatics class, which was focused on programming, only because of my gender (the teacher was male). Nevertheless, I did manage to learn programming later on and wanted to study it further at the University, but by another, already female, teacher I was strongly advised against it, because of a harsh discrimination among programmers in the industry that she experienced. That is indeed only one obvious example, as there is a lot of other small things, when growing up and studying, which females experience and which can go unnoticed, but do influence our perception of ourselves. But I will not go into detail here, for that we, thankfully, have the gender studies 😀

Santa Pile is the chairperson of the workgroup Young Minds of the ÖPG (Link). If you would like to find out more about her and her research, here is the link to the institute's website.

January 2024

Karin Hain, Assistant Professor of Isotope Physics at the University of Vienna

Karin Hain
© Karin Hain

About myself and my research

I’m an Assistant Professor in the Isotope Physics Group at the University of Vienna since August 2022. My strongly interdisciplinary research aims at identifying the dispersion pathways of long-lived radioisotopes which have been released into the environment by mankind. Suitable radioisotopes are to be used as markers to study effects of climate change. This requires further development of the ultra-sensitive detection technique of accelerator mass spectrometry which is available at the Vienna Environmental Research Accelerator (VERA) comprising the world-unique instrumentation for laser-ion-interaction.

What can be done to achieve more equal opportunities in physics?

In my opinion, planning job security must be considerably improved, especially for academia, so that it becomes possible to combine family planning and a scientific career. This includes increasing the availability of long-term career prospects, such as tenure track positions, but also more flexibility for temporary positions financed by third-party funds.

Based on my own experiences, I would like to appeal to society's responsibility to further establish an interest in natural sciences as part of young women's self-image and to actively encourage them in this. When I was at school, most of my female classmates were convinced that "girls can't do math (and physics) anyway". Fortunately, we are witnessing a gradual change here.

Karin Hain received the ÖPG's Fritz Kohlrausch Prize for Young Physicists in 2020. If you would like to find out more about her and her research, here is the link to the working group (headed by Prof. Golser).