Interview: Dr. Ille Gebeshuber
Ille from the Institute of Applied Physics at the Vienna University of Technology in Austria is an experimental physicist who combines science, industry, jungle and outreach in her work. From 2008 until 2015 she lived and worked in the tropical country Malaysia in South-East Asia, where she learnt at various rainforest expeditions a lot about Nature’s secrets on the nanoscale. Her ideas from the expeditions she is now turning into reality at her home institution in Austria, via biomimetic principle transfer.
1. What inspired you to pursue a career in physics?
Influencing (no complete list!) along different stages of my career were: When I was a small girl I often visited my grand parents who live next-door. They had a bookshelf full with interesting old books and one of them was from Hans Dominik who is a German science fiction author. Dominik wrote books such as Atomgewicht 500 which translates to atomic weight 500. In this book I first read about the work of experimental physicists and I was absolutely stunned by this is unknown world which was opened to me by his books. Another very important occurrence was that a friend - I cannot remember anymore who she was - told me that if we look up to the stars in the sky we look into different pasts because the velocity of the light is constant so if we see different stars next to each other we see them here on earth at the same time but in reality we see different pasts next to each other because the stars are at different distances from Earth. I realized that there is a new unknown world which I would like to know more about. This was one of the first occurrences how my love for the natural sciences was founded.
2. Who are your role models?
As a young child I read about Albert Einstein and Marie Curie and I knew various engineers who worked in the steel company which was located very close to our house. These diploma engineers were in high esteem in the population of the little village where I grew up. I also wanted to be a diploma engineer.
3. How did you get to where you are in your career path?
Already when I was small I decided that the natural sciences are my future. First I wanted to become a medical doctor, more specific an emergency doctor. However, I did not take up this career because at that time when I started to study people told me that I would drive taxis rather than work as a medical doctor because the waiting time for a job was so long. So, I decided to do something else. I also did not study veterinary medicine because the veterinary doctors in my little village were all taking care of cows and pigs and horses and other big animals and I was advised by doctors not to do too hard bodily work because of a hip problem. So, I decided to study something in the natural sciences. Physics, chemistry, mathematics or engineering. I sat down with the study guide and found two interesting sentences: the first interesting sentence I read was that if you study physics engineering the drop out quota is about 72%. I wanted to take up this challenge and to be among the 28% who succeed. Another important factor was that when I finish physics engineering I would be a diploma engineer and as you know from before I wanted to be a diploma engineer. So I decided to go to the technical University in Vienna and study physics. In my primary school I was already recognized as a gifted child. I then went on to the gymnasium for eight years where I had a lot of good language-based education in French, English and Latin. I thought this is important because later on I want you to do something with the natural sciences. When I was 18 I went to the technological university in Vienna where we were just a few girls and many many boys. Many of them had gone to a technical school where they had learned much more mathematics than I had. During the first years, mathematics and the theoretical approach and physics was a big challenge for me. However, I was studying very hard and very soon was better than most of my colleagues. I finished the diploma engineer and then did my doctoral studies in the technical sciences. For my postdoctoral work I decided to go to California. In California I came in first contact with the field called biomineralization. I was absolutely fascinated by the fact that plants and animals can make biominerals in functional form. This was the first time that I heard about bacteria who make magnets and algae who make glass. I wanted to understand this and to apply it in technology. After my time in California I started to work as assistant professor at the Vienna University of Technology. I finished my habilitation in experimental physics in the year 2008 and then we went to Malaysia in southeast Asia where I spent seven years as a full professor at the national University. At the beginning of 2016 I returned to Vienna and ever since then I have been working as associate professor at the Institute of Applied Physics at the Vienna University of technology. I have encountered many people who supported me during my studies and I also had a lot of structural support which means I could concentrate 100% on my studies since I was funded by a stipend. Challenges which I met during my education and my first time in science I mainly remember as boosts in my confidence because it lies in my character that I see obstacles as things that need to be overcome. Although I had always dreamed of becoming a professor, I did not dare to mention habilitation to the head of our institute. But then something important happened: I went to a course which dealt with supporting women in establishing a career in science. There one of the coaches said that most women simply do not say that they want to become professors that they want to make a habilitation. So the first thing I did when I came back from this course was to mention to our head of institute that I want to do my habilitation - and imagine what happened: he said: “I have been waiting for so long for you to express this wish. I will be your mentor.” Another important mentor in my life I met during our mentoring program at the Vienna University of Technology. He was that time our dean of physics and he granted me access to his scientific network and to his great experience in being a professor and how to deal with scientific friends and colleagues.
4. What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
When I was still studying physics I heard that some ears are not only transducing the sounds in our world around us but that they are also producing tones. I was absolutely fascinated by this fact that ears can make sounds. I contacted the people at the General Hospital in Vienna who had a a microphone which you put into the ear to detect the sounds that the peoples ears emit. For this experiment you sit in a soundproof room. I asked many of my friends to work with me with me as guinea pigs. In the research I did with them I confirmed what I had read in scientific publications, namely that every ear emits characteristic sounds which when you analyze them by doing a fast Fourier transformation you can see just from the frequency distribution that this is the right or the left ear of this are that person – like an auditory fingerprint! This so-called otoacoustic emissions were for me one of the first instances where I saw this beautiful connection between life and physics. I then also decided to do my diploma thesis and my PhD thesis in the area of auditory biophysics.
5. What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?
One of the times that I feeled immense pride in my work occurred when I was doing my postdoctoral studies in Santa Barbara in California. I had taken up the research task of recording with a new microscope, the so-called atomic force microscope, live glass building algae under water. There are tens of thousands of different species of these glass making algae and for many years people had tried in vain to image them with this new type of microscope. When I went to California I had taken my little pets with me: left handed underwater snails from a little water body in Austria. These snails I put into the fish tank with the algae and the microscope slides on which they were supposed to grow for the scientific investigations. The reason why I put them in there was because I had too little space for a fish tank for my snails AND a fish tank for the diatoms. Diatoms are glass making algae. During the first weeks of my work in California I had many things to do and forgot about feeding my snails. When I wanted to start my scientific work, I had to find out that all of the microscope slides were empty. My snails had eaten my specimens! I was ready to give up, pack my bags and return to Austria - because my pets had eaten the basis of my scientific work. But then I started to think: “These snails with their grating tongue had eaten all the diatoms which did not glue very well to the microscope slides. However, if there are some diatoms left they must have very very good glue and attach very well to the glass slide so that I might also be able to image them with the atomic force microscope.” I went to the Professor, Paul Hansma, and told him: “Tonight we are going to have the first images of life diatoms with the atomic force microscope.” I had found on the glass slides a couple of diatoms which were still alive and, indeed, at 4:16 in the morning, I obtained the very first images in the world of live diatoms under the atomic force microscope! This opened up a completely new area of scientific investigation of how to make glass at ambient conditions with water-based chemistry and not elevated temperature or pressure. I published the results in a famous microscopy journal and reported my finding at various scientific conferences. I am very thankful to the snails that they helped me to identify from the tens of thousands of different species the few ones - they were just three - the few ones which were compatible with this new type of microscope and I am also proud about myself that I had the idea that only the toughest ones would have survived my snails and would be fit for further investigations.
6. What is a “day in the life” of Ille C. Gebeshuber like?
I want to tell you about a day which happened not too long ago and which was very important for me. We had a science outreach program in which we are doing workshops for small children between seven and nine years old. What I did with them was that we replicated the beautiful structural colors from CDs and DVDs in a modeling mass which is generally used in dental medicine. In this way I show to the children that colors cannot only be produced by pigments but also by periodic micro- and nanostructures which play with the light and cause beautiful strong iridescent colors. Such colors are also present in various butterflies and even in plants. On one of our rain forest expeditions in Malaysia we found a plant, a spikemoss, which is blue or green depending on how you hold the leaf. This coloration comes from a very thin layer which plays with the light similar to the thin layer in soap bubbles which show beautiful iridescent coloration. In this workshop the children produced beautiful iridescent master stamps with which they can repetitively stamp colors without having to use any pigments, just by transferring the structures onto other surfaces, for example to window color.
7. What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
I am an experimental physicist doing biomimetics which means that I am learning from living nature for applications in science, technology, architecture and the arts. What I would like to accomplish in my career is to show people that we can learn a lot from living nature about how to make our things better and more sustainable. I want to revolutionize the way that we are producing, using and disposing of the things that we need in our daily lives by changing the way they are produced. I give you one example: At the moment we are using in many cases chemical pesticides which not only attack the species of insects we want to attack but also many many other insects and animals. Furthermore, they pollute the soil and they harm the people who eat them. There is a way to produce pesticides in a completely different fashion. This new way of producing pesticides is to make physical pesticides inspired by the physical pesticides that various plants are producing and which just act against one species, namely the certain species who wants to eat the respective plant. This physical pesticide is completely harmless to other animals and organisms in general, including children who can eat for example grapes and plums without any problem. The physical pesticide of the grapes and plums you can see as the whitish layer on these fruits. If you stroke with your finger over this whitish layer you are destroying the scattering particles by making them smaller and therefore they do not appear white anymore but you see the body coloration of the respective fruit which is blue in color. In collaboration with an applied mathematician who is a professor at the University of Cardiff we intend to generate a database where we write down which size and fracture properties the respective crystals need to have to be active against certain types of herbivores who want to eat the respective plant. This is just one example for the positive technologies I am working on. I have written a whole book on how I would like to enter biomimetics our technological world. In this book I identify three areas, namely materials, structures and processes, in which we can learn from living nature. In the materials aspect I give as example phytomining, which means mining with plans, for heavy metals, for example for lead and cadmium, but also for noble metals such as Gold. In the area of structures, I mention structural coloration and butterfly wings and how we can reproduce it in stamps which can be used hundreds of times to stamp functionalities of butterfly wings such as beautiful coloration, directed water run-off and self-cleaning abilities onto any surface of a compatible hardness. In the third area I deal with processes, more specifically biomineralization processes. As said before, I am thrilled by bacteria which make magnets and algae which make glass. There are more than 70 different biominerals that plants and animals produce with water-based chemistry at ambient conditions. Why not learn from them how to build the things that we need? Learn how to build them with local resources at ambient conditions in a way that they can be used as food or fertilizer, and that their production, uses and disposal do not post any danger for future generations, not just people but all organisms who share this beautiful Earth with us.
8. What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
I am a person who is not very much focused on auditory or visual inputs. I much more prefer things which I can smell or taste of feel. In my private time I like to make perfumes on my own. I have about 350 base substances from the perfume industry which I mix together for specific perfumes which I give to friends or at specific occasions. I also like very much animals, cats, dogs, horses, camels. So I like to go camel riding. I like to play with cats. And I also love caving: going to caves with friends and going to a different world where we do not have any mobile phone reception and where we can watch and learn from what we see. Watch and learn from what we see brings me to another one of my favorite pastimes which also intersects with my professional work: I love to go on rainforest expeditions with people from various fields of education and learn from living nature how to make our technology better.
9. What advice do you have for other women interested in physics?
What is very important in the study of physics, especially in the very first semesters, is that you are interested in mathematics and that you enjoy doing mathematics. Without this, studying physics is not fun. So, what I say if somebody is interested in physics is: “Are you interested in mathematics?”. If the answer is “No” I cannot recommend them to study physics. If the answer is “Yes!” and they love physics and love mathematics, I recommend them to study it. However, I also advise them to very carefully consider a career in science. It is very hard to stay in science, especially if you want to follow long-time plans for your life, if you want to have a family and if you want to have a permanent position. Physics is for me a wonderful field and I would, if I were 18 again, study it again. It is my big joy in life and I think I can contribute a lot to making the world a little bit better with the knowledge that I have gotten from my study of physics, from my work in physics, from my general interests and from my friends.
10. What should be done to increase the number of women in physics?
I think that it is very important to have role models, to see people of your own gender and of your own interest who work in a field which might interest you. So I decided to do a lot of science outreach work, already for four year old girls, but also for children around 7 to 9 and then from 10 to 14 and then also for the older ones who still might not know which field of study they want to take up. To study natural sciences or engineering still provides very good career prospects and I think every woman who is interested in physics and mathematics can and should have the chance to at least talk to some researchers doing physics and also to physicists working in industry and in education.
Foto-Rechte: (1) Ille Gebeshuber, (2) Ille Gebeshuber, (3) Ille Gebeshuber