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Director Huib Bakker about new research themes at AMOLF

At the boundaries and in the overlap

Each of the nine NWO Institutes has its own scientific mission and strategy within its own specific scientific fields. They regularly review their mission and strategy and subsequently implement any possible changes. NWO Institute AMOLF recently established a new scientific direction. Innovation is embedded in the AMOLF mission: initiating and realising new fundamental research in the physics of complex matter, and using the knowledge gained to create new functional materials in collaboration with universities and industry. AMOLF director Huib Bakker enthusiastically explains how the choice for the new themes Autonomous Matter, Sustainable Energy Materials and Information in Matter arose, and what this means for the AMOLF research programme.

Strategy day

How did the process from which these choices emerged unfold? Does someone all of a sudden suggest that ‘the time has come for us to change the themes’? Bakker: ‘Several years ago, we spent an entire day brainstorming with the group leaders about possible new themes which we could incorporate in our research program the coming years.’ “What are the most important international scientific developments, and how can we best connect with these?”, was an important question. Many of the ideas from the group leaders pointed in the same direction, namely a stronger connection between disciplines that already exist at AMOLF. We recognised the growing number of similarities between research from different departments, such as research into photonic systems and research into mechanical metamaterials. For the research into biological systems, we saw that this exhibited very interesting similarities with the research into chemical systems and soft robots within Designer Matter. Our energy research had also developed a broader scope. That interest had expanded from solar cells and systems that convert light into electricity to the use of light to direct and monitor chemical reactions, and the associated mechanisms and experimental techniques. This, in turn, exhibited overlap with the activities in Designer Matter. The large common denominators of our research were found to lie in materials that intrinsically process information in a smart manner and in materials that can organise themselves. Everybody’s enthusiasm was stirred up by that insight! The strategy day formed the beginning of thinking about new multidisciplinary themes. The names of the themes Autonomous Matter, Sustainable Energy Materials and Information in Matter were chosen at a later stage.’

Interdisciplinary themes and, at the same time, strong disciplines

‘The new themes were enthusiastically received and embraced by everybody. Our Institute Advisory Committee (IAR), which consists of fellow scientists and representatives from industry and societal organisations, also responded enthusiastically. Both the IAR and NWO judged that AMOLF is very good at responding to new directions and important international scientific developments. They are excited about the consolidation of functionally separate areas of expertise in interdisciplinary themes that play a role in addressing major scientific and societal challenges. We started to implement the new themes in our organisation immediately after the summer. Another crucial aspect was that the new themes had to enrich the training of postdocs and PhDs and that the strengths of the various underlying disciplines would be well utilised and retained. The success of the new interdisciplinary themes will largely be determined by the strength of the disciplines contributing to that theme. We have therefore defined five research expertise centres: Chemistry & Spectroscopy, Living Systems, Modern Mechanics, Nanophotonics, and Nanophotovoltaics. PhDs and postdocs have been assigned to a theme and within one or more expertise centres. The centres are important to train researchers and, of course, as a place to exchange experiences and ideas within the discipline. Examples are the exchange of ideas about the latest nanomanufacturing methods, the development of new instruments and spectroscopic methods, but also the latest scientific developments in the discipline. This role is complementary to that of the themes, where PhDs are specifically brought into contact with different disciplines.’

What does Bakker expect from this new structure of AMOLF?

‘Many new discoveries emerge when concepts from one discipline are applied in another discipline. That is made uniquely possible with a research theme that does not fall within the boundaries of a discipline but straddles disciplines and where an interdisciplinary approach is, as it were, self-evident. AMOLF has always identified new themes that we energetically initiate and develop so that several groups can work on this in a short space of time. One consequence of introducing multidisciplinary themes is that colleagues will try to set up even more projects that they could carry out together. I therefore expect that the nature of the research proposals will change and that more research projects will be proposed with surprising combinations of research. Examples are combinations of optical and mechanical research within Information in Matter, for which people will work together on self-learning materials, or within Autonomous Matter where chemical reactions are realised that autonomously form complete 3D nanostructures by making use of living matter concepts. I am very curious to see how the different ideas will develop. We will also continue to monitor where new opportunities arise within each theme, such as emergent directions that we would like to strengthen. I also expect that new themes will result in new national and international collaborations because they represent such interesting combinations of research.’

A new Strategic Plan without disciplinary boundaries

‘At the end of 2022, AMOLF will write a new strategic plan for the period until the end of 2028. By that time, we will have benefited from the new research plans we have developed within the themes and the acquired experiences with the new interdisciplinary organisation. In any event, what will remain is that the success of the new strategic plan will be strongly determined by the close collaboration between researchers, technicians and administrative support personnel at AMOLF. Many fantastic things will emerge from the collaboration between these smart and motivated people, and it goes without saying that I’m more than a little proud of that!’

Would you like to know more about the new themes?

In the magazine AMOLF News of December 2021 (page 8 and 9, in Dutch only) and on the AMOLF-website you can read more about the themes Autonomous MatterSustainable Energy Materials and Information in Matter

Newsletter Inside NWO-I, February 2022

Source: this interview has been reproduced from the Dutch  AMOLF News magazine, December 2021.

Text: Anita van Stel
Photo: Lucas Helmbrecht

Confidental Infomation