10 Questions with Caroline Arnold
Caroline from Germany is a postdoc at the Center for Free-Electron Laser Science – CFEL in Hamburg, Germany.
Her research focusses on the theoretical description of fundamental electronic and nuclear processes unfolding in molecules on a femtosecond time scale (1 femtosecond equals a millionth of a billionth of a second). The phenomena of interest include, e.g., the formation of radicals in liquid water upon photoionisation, or ultrafast charge separation in the building blocks of organic solar cells. They aim to provide interpretations for ultrafast experiments, and to arrive at models that explain sub-femtosecond dynamics.
Caroline will participate in the 69th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.
Enjoy the interview with Caroline and get inspired:
- What inspired you to pursue a career in science?
Although as a kid I wanted to be an astronomer for some time, I did not pursue the straightest path to physics. In high school I focussed on foreign languages, and only towards the end of my final year, when we learned about special relativity and the laser, I developed an interest in physics. What I really like about physics is the connection of mathematical formalisms with the real world that is accessible through experiments. Furthermore, there are many interesting careers possible with a physics degree, so it felt like a good place to start.
- Who are your role models?
I do not have a particular role model, but I honour all women who enabled today’s generation of female researchers to enter universities and be scientists.
- How did you get to where you are in your career path?
I recently finished my PhD in theoretical physics at the University of Hamburg, working in the field of molecular dynamics. During that time I was a research assistant at the Center for Free-Electron Laser Science in Hamburg. Before that, I completed a diploma degree in physics at the University of Tübingen in southern Germany.
The most challenging time for me was in the first two years of my undergraduate studies. The lectures and exams were very tough, and I felt like I did not understand a lot. Afterwards, things started falling into place more and more, and I felt more confident.
- What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
To me, the connection of theory and experiment is what makes physics exciting. During my PhD, I had the opportunity to collaborate with experimental groups. I visited the experiment at LCLS, an x-ray free-electron laser in California, where we were allocated few days to take data. Working in a large interdisciplinary collaboration can be challenging, but it is very rewarding when things start to come together.
- What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?
After my PhD defense. Until then, it felt surreal that I will actually hold a PhD in physics, but when I realised that it had come true, I felt very proud of myself.
- What is a “day in the life” of Caroline like?
A typical day in my life starts by biking to the DESY campus in Hamburg, where the Center for Free-Electron Laser Science is located. There, I get to work on my current project, which often involves programming and checking the progress of my jobs on a high-performance computer. I also prepare project reports to be discussed with my supervisors and experimental collaborators, and the students might pop in to ask questions about their theses. In addition, I write manuscripts or prepare for conferences, so the job is always exciting! My day is supported by the occasional trip to our excellent coffee machine. In the evening, I work on tasks related to a conference I am co-organizing, or I unwind by meeting friends, cooking, music or sports.
- What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
Ultrafast molecular dynamics is a comparatively young field, since the light sources that are needed for our experiments emerged only about a decade ago. So there are many more things to discover, and I hope to find out about some of them! I also hope to be a good role model for younger generations of female scientists.
- What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
I like to spend my free time with family or friends, as well as singing in a small choir, playing the piano, reading or doing sports. In my vacations I also like to travel, in the past years I have been especially interested in exploring Eastern European countries. With a group of scientists, I am advocating for gender equality in science and we are organizing a conference to take place later this year.
- What advice do you have for other women interested in science?
Surround yourself by people who take your interest in science seriously and support you in your career. Do not be afraid to start a project where you are not entirely sure if you have all the necessary skills: It may be a good opportunity to grow, both personally and professionally.
- In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science?
I do not know what the next breakthrough in science will be, but I hope it will be attributed to the whole field, not only to single people who are featured as the genius but could never have had the idea on their own.
What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?
First of all, it is important to improve the gender ratio from an early age. Science should be cool and attractive for children of all genders.
There is evidence that diverse teams perform better than homogenous ones, so I hope that academia will profit from a more diverse faculty. To get there, I think it is necessary to reconsider how academia and researchers’ careers are structured. With more flexible career schemes, more permanent positions outside of professorships, long-term funding for projects and an improved work-life balance, it is possible to support academics with a variety of backgrounds and career objectives.
Photo Credits: (1) Caroline Arnold, (2) Caroline Arnold, (3) Caroline Arnold