Working Toward Ultrafast Nanoscale Optical Devices

Meet Martina Abb, 29, one of the up-and-coming physicists attending this year’s Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting

The annual Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting brings a wealth of scientific minds to the shores of Germany’s Lake Constance. Every summer at Lindau, dozens of Nobel Prize winners exchange ideas with hundreds of young researchers from around the world. Whereas the Nobelists are the marquee names, the younger contingent is an accomplished group in its own right. In advance of this year’s meeting, which focuses on physics, we are profiling several promising attendees under the age of 30. 
Name: Martina Abb
Age: 29
Born: Friedrichshafen, Germany
Nationality: German
Current position: Research fellow at the School of Physics & Astronomy, University of Southampton
Education: Master of Science (Diploma) from the University of Heidelberg, Germany (2009);
PhD from the University of Southampton, UK (June 2012)
What is your field of research?
I am working on nonlinear control of plasmonic nanostructures. That means that we investigate the electron gas oscillations that occur in metal nanoparticles and how they can be manipulated on ultrafast time scales. Ultimately, the holy grail is to develop nanoscale ultrafast optical devices for integrated photonic circuits.
What drew you to physics, and to that research area in particular?
What drew me to physics in general was always the challenge of exploring and understanding new ideas. What drew me towards the field of research I am currently involved in is both its versatility and its applicability. For my Master’s thesis, I was doing purely theoretical work, which was very interesting as well – but I wasn’t comfortable just working at a desk all day. During my thesis and now in my first postdoc, I have a very good mixture of all aspects of research projects. I enjoy both doing nanofabrication in the clean rooms, the simulations and exchange of ideas and finally, the table-top optics experiments that need to be designed and built. That way, if you’re stuck on one aspect, you can go and do something else for a while to clear your head.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
In 10 years, I hope to have significantly contributed to my chosen fields of research. It would be fantastic to achieve seizable ultrafast signal modulation with nanooptical components.
Most importantly of all, though, I hope that I’ll still be as enthusiastic about physics in general and plasmonics in particular, and that research will still be as much fun!

Who are your scientific heroes?
My scientific heroes – that is a difficult question. I don’t like to choose historical personalities for that, because, even if they have achieved or discovered great things, I don’t know them personally and I wouldn’t want to glorify someone I might not agree with on other levels. Rather, I look among my colleagues and collaborators who tackle scientific difficulties everyday and are not deterred by all kinds of small obstacles such as bureaucratic issues. They are the real scientific heroes, I believe.
What activities outside of physics do you most enjoy?
I read a lot in my free time, but never any physics books. I quite enjoy doing sports; my recent passion being squash, which I play 2-3 times a week. I also do quite a bit of outreach, like going to schools with our department’s laser light show to get children of all ages interested in physics.
What do you hope to gain from this year’s Lindau meeting?
There’s many things I hope to gain from the Lindau meeting. For one thing, it will be great to meet so many other young researchers from all over the world who work on so many different topics. I think that will give me a whole new perspective – even at bigger physics conferences, you normally only get a quite specific range of topics. For example, I never meet particle physicists at any of the conferences I go to. On the other hand, I’m looking forward to hearing all the big names give their talks and master classes, of course!
Are there any Nobelists whom you are particularly excited to meet or learn from at Lindau?
Albert Fert and William Phillips are the two names that come to my mind at once, since I am incredibly impressed by their work. Looking at the program, I am very much looking forward to Peter Gruenberg’s talk on “An introduction to the Harmonies of Alpine Folklore Music with Live Examples” – that should be interesting!
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