Talk with Claude Monney, Professor, Ultrafast Spectroscopy Group, UniFR

Please tell us about your main research interests during these last years?

I have started my scientific career doing theory in condensed matter physics during my diploma work. Then I continued with my PhD studies learning about experimental physics with photoemission spectroscopy in Neuchâtel. At that time, my PhD supervisor, Philipp Aebi, found the right thing to do, given my profile: he proposed me to keep a foot in theory by collaborating with Hans Beck, a theoretician, and I could this way really enjoy my scientific research, trying many different things, combining experiment and theory.

To make it short, I went then working in different institutes, doing more and more experimental physics and eventually started building my own experimental setups, combining ultra-high vacuum equipment with lasers. My current research interest is about trying to manipulate exotic states of matter with external stimuli like laser pulses or mechanical strain, and probing them with electron and photon spectroscopies. In this context, I find fascinating working with transition metal dichalcogenides, since these materials never stop surprising us.

What is your favorite aspect of your research?

I will actually mention two of my favorite aspects. To me, the spectrum of the physicist expertise in research is broad, and I like very much the idea of exploring it through my career. As I was sketching above, I started as a theoretician, and then I moved gradually to experimental physics and, eventually, I built my own complicated setups in the last years. A next motivating step could be to develop my own instrumentation! I greatly value the freedom that we have in our life as research scientists in academia. This is an essential ingredient of creativity and serendipity.

The second favorite aspect of my research is about team management. Nowadays, as a SNSF professor in Fribourg, I am learning how to lead a small team. This is a very exciting time and there are a lot of small challenges every week. What I particularly like is to find how to deal with the personality and specialities of each member of my team, so that everyone contributes as well as possible to the scientific and social life of the group. It looks like being the conductor of an orchestra, trying to be sufficiently present, but not too much, to obtain the most harmonious music.

What research perspective do you see for the next 10 years?

This is a difficult question, because so much can happen in a few years, especially in research. It sometimes seems pretentious to me to predict such future opportunities 10 years ahead. And I like to leave space for chance and astonishment. As an expert in light (resonant inelastic x-ray scattering) and electron (photoemission) spectroscopy, I see that one next step is to measure materials on the sub-micron length scale. This type of research has already started, but it is developing further. This will be very profitable to study delicate materials where inhomogeneity or mixed phases play an important role, or for working on in-operando devices and heterostructures. I find this very attractive.

Another motivating opportunity for the future of science in Switzerland is the development of SwissFEL. I am really looking forward to the first experiments at the new Athos beamline, currently in construction, especially in the context of resonant inelastic x-ray scattering with soft-x rays.

What you like to do when you aren’t working on research?

I like particularly doing activities in the mountains, like ski touring in winter or climbing in summer, for several reasons. First of all, because this happens in close contact with nature, allowing not only calm and contemplation, but also necessitating to take into account weather and snow conditions. Another important aspect of mountaineering is risk management. When climbing a difficult summit, it is important to reduce risk to an acceptable level, without slowing down too much progression. This is a delicate trade-off and a good experience for everyday life. The current situation with the covid-19 reminds us that this kind of trade-off is always present with it comes to risk management. Finally, and most importantly, mountaineering is for me an activity to share with family, friends and colleagues.

Photo credits: B. Vuillemin; G. Rumo

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