10 Questions with Josefine Proll
Josefine Proll, 28, from Germany is a Postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Germany.
She tries try to understand where turbulence in fusion plasmas – one of the limiting factors before a successful fusion reactor can be built – comes from and how one might suppress it, for example by cleverly shaping the magnetic cage that confines the plasma.
Josefine is a participant of the 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting which is dedicated to the field of physics in 2016.
Enjoy the interview with Josefine and get inspired:
- What inspired you to pursue a career in physics / STEM?
Ever since I was a kid I really enjoyed science and math, loved doing little experiments at home and in school. But the decision to actually work in science only was only made after a visit to the then newly opened Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Greifswald when I was 13. There I learned about nuclear fusion and how it might provide a solution to the worlds energy problem (something that was a surprisingly important topic to me even back then), and I just knew that I wanted to be involved in making fusion happen. At age 17 I then went to the Max Planck Institute to do a 2-week internship – I just enjoyed the atmosphere there and how physicists work and I could really see myself doing this for the rest of my life. And here I am 🙂
- Who are your role models?
I’m not sure whether I’d really call them role models, but the head of our institute, Prof. Dr. Sibylle Günter, certainly inspires me – she’s a great leader and also manages to have an impact both scientifically and on the political aspects of our research, while still remaining a fairly down-to-earth person. Also, and this might sound really cliché, it’s just great to see a woman who has a family in this kind of position, just as a reminder that it’s possible to have it all.
Another ‘role model’ would probably be my former PhD advisor Prof. Dr. Per Helander. He just has a very strong moral compass and shows that it’s possible to be a successful scientist without all the back-stabbing. I’d be very happy if I could be somewhat like that
- How did you get to where you are in your career path?
Directly after my science-heavy A-levels at Landesschule Pforta I studied for my BSc in Physics at University of Würzburg within the EliteNetwork Bavaria program FOKUS Physik, which was meant to give motivated students early access to research and generally support them in just doing a bit more. One of the professors there also contacted the Max Planck Institute in Greifswald for me, asking whether I could do my Bachelor thesis there – and so I went there and enjoyed it immensely. For my Masters I went to Imperial College London because they were famous for their large Plasma Physics group, and again I found a great mentor who helped me do my Master thesis in yet another plasma physics lab near Oxford. By then I had realized that working in the lab as an experimentalists wasn’t really my thing, so I decided to apply in Greifswald in the theory group, where I had already done my Bachelor thesis. For the next three years I worked with Prof. Per Helander on my PhD project, and because I liked the work and the work environment so much I stayed as a PostDoc. This PostDoc was embedded in a partnership between MPG and Princeton University and the plasma physics laboratory PPPL there, and I had the chance to work at PPPL for 6 months in total. This stay, even though I admit I was a bit reluctant to go because I enjoyed living in Greifswald so much, proved to be a really great and important experience, both scientifically as well as personally. Currently I’m on a Helmholtz PostDo grant and continue to do the research that interests me most.
- What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
Ha, that’s an easy question: Clearly Wendelstein 7-X, the big stellarator experiment that started operations last December (2015). It is the most advanced fusion experiment in the world so far, with its particularly twisted magnetic field and superconducting magnetic field coils. And it’s also just really beautiful, a giant thing made from shiny steel, and if you know how much knowledge went into it, you can’t not find it impressive. If it succeeds, we will be significantly closer to achieving fusion, which is just very exciting.
- What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?
When a fairly old and experienced researcher from the US approached me while on visit to Germany, telling me how excited he was about my work, since he’d observed something in an experiment some 20 years ago and that he finally found the explanation for it in one of my papers.
- What is a “day in the life” of Josefine like?
Phew, that’s a bit tricky to answer, because my days vary quite a lot. If it’s really just an average day, no conference deadline looming over my head (then the day is filled with preparing my talk or poster, obviously), then I usually check on my turbulence simulations and submit new ones, sit down to do some old-fashioned but nevertheless useful pen-and-paper calculations and read a couple of papers – not always in that order, and I don’t always do all of these things Now that our experiment Wendelstein 7-X is actually running, I’ve had increasingly more meetings with experimentalists, where we discuss what they can measure and whether we as theorists can simulate what they see. This part I really enjoy, because it always gives me new ideas on what to look at in my simulation and what might be worth calculating.
- What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
I’d be very happy if at the end of my career I had contributed to making fusion a reality and taught some students the beauty of magnetic confinement fusion.
- What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
I love music, so I spend lots of my evenings either singing in my choir or attending classical concerts. When the weather is nice I also enjoy sailing and gardening, and if the weather is not so nice I’m very happy if I can just spend time with friends, cooking and chatting, or read a good book or watch a TV series.
- What advice do you have for other women interested in physics / STEM?
Don’t care about the – tragically still high – number of people who will try to tell you that physics/STEM is “really hard for girls”, you’ll prove them wrong anyway.
If you’re struggling during the first years at university, don’t think for a second that you’re the only one, it’s totally normal.
And if you want something – to attend a certain conference or work on a certain project or have a higher salary – don’t expect people to guess what it is, just ask for it (nicely).
- In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physics research?
That’s quite tricky to answer, you never know what exciting finding might be just around the corner. I certainly hope that our community will be able to show that fusion is doable and that it can make a contribution to solving the worlds energy problem.
What should be done to increase the number of female professors of physics?
I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, and I’m not sure there’s a good and definite answer. Considering how seeing our head of institute, Prof. Dr. Sibylle Günter, in her position has motivated and encouraged me myself, I think hiring some female professors to encourage the following generation might be useful. Having a quota in place is probably needed for the first couple of years (decades?), even though I’m not a big fan of having quotas on positions /grants, because it just leaves you with this feeling that you only or at least partly got something (a grant/ a position) because they needed a woman to match the quota and not because you’re just that good (speaking from experience here…). But I don’t see an alternative to quotas at the moment, unfortunately.