Janine Splettstoesser

With a mind set on nano

​She’s a professor of applied quantum physics, a mother of three and speaks five languages. As the leader of the interdisciplinary Nano Excellence Initiative, Janine Splettstoesser now wants to create one of Europe's top nano-centers with the goal of addressing the biggest challenges facing the society. But when it comes to the proudest career moments, she’d rather speak about her students. "When a PhD student gives a really good defense on their dissertation and can continue to work on what they really like and subsequently grow as a researcher. That makes me really proud.”​
We meet in the department’s family room. It's Easter break and Janine’s 6-year-old son Paolo has come along. He immediately starts pulling out building kits and tricky games from the shelves while Janine takes a seat at a destinated workplace across the room. An empty desk and an ordinary laptop. A mind-blowing thought to an outsider that this is all that is needed for a professor of applied quantum physics when trying to juggle lectures, seminars, conferences and supervision of PhD students. Not to mention her own research.

Right now, it's all about the relationships between thermodynamics and quantum mechanics, what is normally referred to as quantum thermodynamics. Because, as Janine puts it, "if you want to make new nanotechnology, it’s really good to know the underlying dynamics. And if you want a quantum computer that works well, you need to know what the energy consumption looks like and how best keep it cold during operation."  

Janine’s many engagements at the department of Microtechnology and Nanoscience become clear within minutes. We’ve already touched on her teaching, PhD supervision and research. But as of 2021 she’s also the new Director of the Nano Excellence Initiative, a government-funded and interdisciplinary initiative, that includes three other departments besides her own - chemistry, physics, biology - with the joint ambition to promote research and development of nanotechnology at the university.

"My goal is to create a meeting place for nano-researchers at all levels, junior as well as senior. A kind of incubator for building collaborations, sharing ideas and networking," Janine explains. 

But that’s not all. Janine is also one of the initiators behind the family room we’re currently in. Why so? To enable researchers to combine a successful research career with family life. An important topic to Janine. 

"If you have small kids and you need to go to a conference or perhaps to a meeting with collaborators, and you haven’t managed to solve childcare, you might face logistical problems. Which tends to lead to researchers having to limit their work, especially female researchers. A room like this can solve that sort of problem," Janine explains.

And when asked if they’ve used the family room frequently, Paolo anticipates his mum: "Hundreds of times!", he proclaims contentedly and continues to build on his maze.

The (un)obvious researcher 

Janine somehow feels natural in her research role and in her field. She talks enthusiastically and joyfully about her research and her students. And as the oldest in a sibling group of five and with two researching parents, a mother in physics and a father in mathematics, it may seem strange that it was never self-evident to Janine to choose a research career. However, there were never any ruling expectations in terms of career paths. It was more a matter of a family culture that said you can become what you want to be. Nevertheless, the subject of physics did come up every once in a while at the dinner table, albeit in a discouraging way. 

“During high school, I had many different ideas about what I should study - architecture, design or medicine perhaps. And right after high school, I got involved in social work for a few years before I continued my studies. But I have always been into math and physics and solving problems. At the same time, I’ve also been interested in languages. As a matter of fact, my mum actually used to warn me: behave or else I’ll make you study physics ", says Janine and laughs.

Perhaps a classic example of reverse psychology. Either way, it seems to have worked.
And in addition to her academic merits in physics, Janine also speaks five languages. No wonder if you take a look at her academic journey. A tour that has gone all over the European continent. 

She grew up near Düsseldorf and moved as a 20-year-old to Karlsruhe in southern Germany to study physics. During her master's studies, she did an exchange year in Grenoble, France, after which she returns to Germany to complete her master's studies. After that, straight to Italy to do her PhD at the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, on "Adiabatic pumping in interacting quantum dots". It’s during her PhD studies in Pisa that Janine's fascination for quantum physics really takes off. This is also where she meets her future husband, who at the time did his PhD in astrophysics. After that: post-doc at the University of Geneva while her boyfriend heads off to Hamburg. Then back to Germany to take on the position as professor of physics at the University of Aachen. In Aachen, Janine also receives a large research grant. A turn of events that in retrospect is looked upon as a significant milestone. 

“This is when I got to lead my own research group for the first time. I was able to recruit PhD students and post-docs and shape my own lectures. Freedom to do it my way, as it were. That’s when the idea that I could become an independent researcher was really brought to life.”

Gothenburg calling
It’s easy to see life as a research couple travelling all over Europe through rose-tinted glasses.
If she misses life as a round-the-clock researcher on the continent? Well, not really. 

"You get fed up in the end. My husband and I had a long-distance relationship for ten years, it’s not something I recommend. Of course, it’s really fun and interesting to move around and constantly getting to know new cultures and learn new languages, but eventually it gets really hard to keep having to split up from friends and work just when you start to feel at home. Now, I’ve been in Sweden for a while, but I still feel like the dumbest parent at kindergarten. It still takes me forever to fill in even the simplest forms ", she says and laughs.

So just over seven years ago, she finally settled down in Gothenburg and at Chalmers, at the time pregnant with the family's first child. Her significant other, who had a research position at Göttingen in Germany, was able to join up as a position opened up at the Department of Physics at Chalmers, just a stone's throw away.
It wasn’t just coincidence that the choice fell on Chalmers. The five-year research project at RWTH Aachen had been completed and Janine and her husband had decided to stay in Europe. After some brief exploration of alternatives, she realized that Chalmers seemed to be a good place to conduct the kind of research she was particularly interested in. At the same time, she was approached by one of the professors of applied quantum physics at Chalmers at a conference, who suggested that Janine should come work with them. Said and done, Janine applied for a position as an Assistant Professor in Nanoscience at Chalmers. But she also applied for a research grant through Wallenberg Academy Fellows - Sweden's largest private career program for young researchers. It all ends up with Janine getting the position as well as the grant. And subsequently research funding for a five-year period, which since then has been extended through the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation.

“The Wallenberg's research grant has been really good for me in several ways. Besides funding my research, it has helped me build a good network as well as introducing me to the Swedish research environment.”

But it turns out that life as a researcher at a Swedish university comes with even more perks. 

“Something I really liked from the beginning was that the culture here is much more equal and relaxed if you compare with, for example, some of the German universities. There, the hierarchies are very strong and the elbows sharper ", says Janine.

The importance of good role models

And speaking of equality, it's almost hard not to mention the fact that Janine, as a female professor of quantum physics, stands out in the group. As a master's student, she was the only woman at the institute and at seminars. And when Janine first made her entrance into the Department of Applied Quantum Physics at Chalmers, she was once again the only woman. Today, six years later, she’s pleased to find that a third of the workforce is made up of women.

There’s no doubt that academia needs good role models. Janine mentions times when female PhD students have approached her after speaks or lectures to express how much it means to see a woman – quite often with a baby under her arm - be an expert on the subject.

Janine too has her own role models. She especially remembers her post-doc supervisor at the Institute of Theoretical Physics in Geneva, Professor M. Büttiker. A familiar name to many physicists. Through his humble and unpretentious style and his way of taking everyone's work seriously, regardless of position or academic rank, he has become a strong influence.

"To him, it didn’t matter if he was talking to a master's student or a Nobel Prize winner. He would invite his friends, people with names that we knew from our physics books. And he would introduce us as experts even though we were just post-docs. He simply took us all equally seriously. I was really inspired by him.”

In that sense, it’s not very surprising that when Janine is asked to highlight her proudest moments in her career, she refers from listing academic advancements, professorships or publications. 

“I can’t deny that I was really proud when I finished my dissertation. But the proudest moments are probably when someone in my research group does a really good job. When a PhD student gives a really good defense on their dissertation and can continue to work on what they really like and grow as a researcher. That makes me really proud.”

From self-doubt to pure grit
We decide to relocate to Janine’s office, a few stairs up. Paolo shows the way by skipping through the corridors. Janine’s years in Pisa seems to have made an impression. Under the office shelves filled with binders, books and paper is a well-used, coffee stained Italian espresso pot. Across the room hangs a large blackboard covered with never-ending calculations in white chalk. Just as one would expect from a professor of quantum physics.

But has it always been easy? Have there never been any doubts?

“When I did my PhD, I really had my doubts. Will I be able to do this? Am I smart enough? I was actually very close to giving up.”

But Janine's plans to throw in the towel would soon be stopped. An old friend from school came to visit and changed her outlook on things completely.

“She didn’t understand why I had doubts when I always had such good grades in school.  She told me that if I had doubts about being smart enough, just keep pretending to be clever for another two years and then, once that’s done, decide what I want to do,” Janine explains and laughs.

Whether the argument worked is unclear, but Janine rode through the storm and came out on the other side. With honors. Since then, Janine has become quite used to dealing with tricky problems. 
So, what’s her driving force? 

“Definitely my curiosity. I face problems that I don’t understand almost every day. But then, you talk about the problem with colleagues and do some more reading and calculating until you get it. I’ve always liked to figure things out.”

It’s obvious that Janine really likes her job. That she's in the right place. To her it’s all about making choices that feel right at the moment and trusting that you somehow end up in the right place. Like many physicists at the beginning of their career, Janine too thought she would focus solely on theoretical particle physics. But over time, the plan was revised.

“I really like that I can do both fundamental research with heavy theoretical method development and at the same time think about exciting technical applications. It’s really cool to be able to sit and work theoretically and have the option to just go to the lab next door and talk to people to see if my calculations are correct.”

From the office window you can just barely see parts of the kindergarten yard. Janine lifts Paolo to make sure he gets the same view. Is it his baby brothers they can see from a distance, jumping around on the playground? They both agree; it’s Fabian and Mattia they spot. Perhaps it's the window view that makes Janine resume the topic of proud career moments. 

"I just have to say that I’m incredibly proud that me and my husband actually managed to make this work in the end. That we can do what we are passionate about at work and, at the same time, have a fantastic family.”

Text by: Lovisa Håkansson

Page manager Published: Mon 28 Jun 2021.