Interview: Martino Poggio
Martino Poggio is a Physics Professor at the University of Basel where he is currently Deputy Chair of the Department of Physics, and - since August 2022 - the Director of the Swiss Nanoscience Institute (SNI). Martino’s research group focuses on nanomechanical sensing, nanomagnetism, and sensitive scanning probe microscopy.
Congratulations on taking over the role of Director of the Swiss Nanoscience Institute (SNI) earlier this year! Tell us about when and how SNI was founded, and how it evolved before your taking over the leadership position.
The SNI was founded in 2006 between the University of Basel and the Swiss Canton Aargau. The idea behind the SNI is to foster the work of interdisciplinary teams of scientists who conduct basic and applied research and get active support in technology transfer to industry in northwestern Switzerland. The SNI emerged from the National Center of Competence in Research (NCCR) Nanoscale Science, which was founded in 2001 based on the work of groups around Professor H.-J. Güntherodt who was a pioneer of nano-imaging, followed by the leadership of C. Schönenberger who took it to the next level by providing more infrastructure for joint projects and who fostered the growth of the institute’s network.
What makes your position and the role of the SNI, special compared to similar institutions?
I was hired as one of the two ‘Argovia’ professors for nanoscience funded by the SNI. My work was always aligned with the SNI goals, I set up my lab with applied projects in mind. After all the years of funding support and research projects done within the SNI, I felt I owe something to the network and that it is time to give back. I see my position as one of service. The SNI is a strong network that involves the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland (FHNW), the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI), and many other partners and serves as a catalyst for innovation. To give you an example of interdisciplinarity: I am involved in an SNI Project with the biomedicine department where we put nanowires into the heart tissue to study both electrical and structural properties. These types of projects would not easily happen without the SNI.
Another special aspect of the SNI is that PhD projects can be funded by the SNI by submitting a two-page application for a competitive project and after a review by the SNI committee the PhD student is fully funded for 4 years. This allows the students to be part of the network, pursue their research and take part in SNI meetings. The success rate is much higher compared to EU funding and this helps us move projects forward.
Within the Nano Argovia program, small companies can engage with the University of Applied Sciences FHNW. This gives students and small companies an opportunity to work together, and it also fosters technology transfer between small and big companies.
So, this is an excellent model of how the local economy and research can work together. Why is nanoscience relevant to society?
Today’s electronics are based on nanoscience. Every device we carry in our pockets has billions of transistors at the nanoscale. In biology, vaccines use nanoparticles to deliver messages to relevant receptors. It is crucial that we continue working in this direction and have a workforce in nanoscience for the future. As a researcher, when you ask yourself how something works you need to look at the smallest details of its components. That’s why nano-imaging is very important, for example.
For us to be constantly in contact with society the SNI organizes outreach activities for the general public and specifically supports initiatives aiming to interest children, young people, and their teachers in natural sciences.
How is the institute funded?
The SNI is directly funded by the canton of Aargau. Every year we receive 4 to 5 million CHF in funding which is backed up by nearly 1 million from the University of Basel. We are incredibly grateful for having this funding as it allows us to conduct both fundamental and applied research. This level of funding is a direct result of the work and network of previous directors, and everyone involved in the project.
What are your plans for collaborations with the industry?
Collaborations with industrial partners in northwestern Switzerland are initiated via existing contacts of scientists in the network. Around half of all applied research projects funded in the Nano Argovia program are carried out in collaboration with companies from the canton of Aargau where nanotechnologies are highly relevant in industry and research. The SNI provides different services like nano-imaging and nanofabrication to partners from research and industry.
Tell us about the educational aspect of the SNI. How many students have been enrolled so far and on what level?
Our Nanoscience educational program is one of the first in the EU after the Kavli Institute of Nanoscience at Delft, for example. We have a nano bachelor curriculum, master, as well as the PhD program. The bachelor's degree focuses on nanosciences as an interdisciplinary science of biology, chemistry, pharma, and physics with a focus on structures and phenomena in the nano domain.
The master's program is also interdisciplinary where the students choose two subjects from the fields of molecular biology, chemistry, physics or medical nanosciences. Students often go abroad, which is supported by the SNI with an Argovia Grant. Since 2007, 240 students successfully completed their bachelor's degree, and 188 (as of Fall 2021) students have their master's degree.
Our doctoral school was launched in 2012 with 15 doctoral students beginning their studies in 2013. Since then, we have sponsored 83 international and domestic doctoral students, of which 23% were women. The students came from 18 different countries. 44 students have successfully completed their PhD dissertations, with 30% continuing work in academia, and the rest working in industry.
What are your plans for the SNI’s future and how do you see your research direction growing with the institute?
In the 15 years since the SNI was funded, we accomplished a lot and the world has changed a lot. Nanotechnology has become a standard research direction. We are looking to devise a new strategy for the SNI and understand what our niche is. We are planning to organize workshops where we will discuss what is important for Kanton Aargau and northwestern Switzerland. Advanced materials and quantum technologies are a large part of it. Nanomedicine and pharma are important for the pharmaceutical industry in the area as well.
As an SNI Director, I want to make sure it is in a position to grow, to both lead and keep up with the industry trends, and to be an important network in Switzerland and Europe. We are a strong network, and we would also strive to build a physical presence with a dedicated space, a building. This would give the center a more tangible and recognizable form.
As for the educational aspects, we plan to modernize the curriculum. We plan to set up workshops with our academic and industrial partners and see how the fields have evolved in the meantime and where we want to go next.
We are trying to reach out to even more companies. Even though we cover only a part of Switzerland, there is a large number of companies that don’t know about us - this is something we need to improve on.
How can Zurich Instruments help you fulfill the goals of the SNI?
A lot of our measurements in my laboratory are done with Zurich Instruments devices. They have helped us immensely in achieving some of the results that otherwise would not be possible with other instrumentation. They are also nano in a way, as all the circuitry and functionality are on the FPGA board and this immensely shrinks the footprint of the experimental apparatus. When it comes to the education of the future workforce, being able to train SNI students on Zurich Instruments equipment would be one way where I see we can join forces. Modernizing equipment for education and research is going to be a top priority as it will help us do more research and projects with the innovative equipment of Zurich Instruments.
Thank you for sharing your insights during this interview.