Published: 12.05.10

Top three percent

And then there were three: Marta Bally, Anja Hänzi and Thomas Helbling share the first Materials Research Award to be presented at ETH Zurich, which they received for their outstanding research during their dissertations.

Simone Ulmer
And the winners are…: Anja Hänzi, Thomas Helbling and Marta Bally (f. l. t. r.) share the first MRC Award to be presented at ETH Zurich. (Photo: Philippe Arnez/ ETH Zurich)
And the winners are…: Anja Hänzi, Thomas Helbling and Marta Bally (f. l. t. r.) share the first MRC Award to be presented at ETH Zurich. (Photo: Philippe Arnez/ ETH Zurich) (large view)

For the fifth time, materials scientist Sara Morgenthaler from ETH Zurich’s Materials Research Center teamed up with a committee of PhD students to organize a graduate symposium for budding young researchers doing their PhD or postdoc in materials research. The idea of the symposium is to encourage the exchange of ideas between the young researchers. Whilst they all work with materials, their research fields and backgrounds are various, ranging from physics, chemistry to engineering.

Spoilt for choice

A jury of six, comprising Paul Seidler from IBM; Hans-Walter Schläpfer from Sulzer; Oreste Ghisalba from Ghisalba Life Sciences; Gian Luca Bona, Director of Empa; and the two ETH-Zurich professors Ulrich W. Suter and Nicholas Spencer; had the difficult task of choosing a winner. They had already viewed the five researchers’ dissertations as a basis for their decision, and must have realized there and then that pitting the different research fields against each other was not going to be easy; especially as regards their relevance for industry – the second criterion for selecting the winner. They were truly spoilt for choice, as the ETH-Zurich professor and Director of the Materials Research Center Ralph Spolenak explained at the awards ceremony. What might have ruled a candidate out on paper as a dissertation, for instance, then had to be reconsidered upon listening to the five candidates’ convincing presentations. The jury’s preconceptions were turned upside down, and in the end three of the five who made it to the final had to share the award and the 2500 francs’ worth of prize money, which was promptly increased to 3000 francs as a result.

Top five

Marta Bally, Anja Hänzi and Thomas Helbling did not only receive 1000 francs each; Spolenak also presented them with a sphere produced in the D-MATL’s central workshop, symbolizing and combining all materials: a puzzle made of metals, ceramics and polymers. During the awards ceremony, Spolenak stated that the five nominees were the top five percent of about 100 PhD students in the field of materials research – a small consolation for the two nominees who weren’t named to share the top spot, Mirjam Ochsner and Antonio Tricoli. However, the nomination in itself is a little milestone on their résumés.

The prize winners were very happy. Anja Hänzi, who did a PhD under Peter Uggowitzer, a professor at the Institute of Metal Research, received the award for her research on special magnesium stents. The stents are inserted into the blood stream in arteriosclerosis patients to stop the arteries from closing up and ultimately prevent a heart attack. Hänzi is not just pleased with the prize, but also the symposium, which gave her an opportunity to gain an insight into other fields, exchange ideas with other people and network. She would like to remain in research; “I’d also really like to stick with biomaterials and implants”, she says.

Thomas Helbling did a PhD under Christopher Hierold, a professor for Micro- and Nanosystems. He wasn’t even sure if he should come to the prize ceremony at all as it meant cutting short a trip through Central and South America with his girlfriend. But now it was worth it. When he returns, he would ideally like to set up his own company; a spin-off maybe. His research, which involves configuring numerous pressure sensors on the basis of carbon nanotubes, could be used in the production of prosthetics, for instance. A company with a corresponding concrete vision where he could contribute his expertise, however, is, “Precisely the link I’m now missing”, says Helbling.

Motivated young researchers

Marta Bally, who did a PhD under Janos Vörös, a professor at the Institute of Biomedical Engineering, is also focusing on research for the time being. She is currently working at Chalmers University in Göteborg, Sweden, where she would like to continue her research as a postdoc for a while longer. Her PhD thesis concentrated on different sensor technologies that can identify biomolecules with a greater degree of efficiency and accuracy. Her dream is to head her own research team. Like with her colleagues, the award was totally unexpected for Bally. The fact that it would culminate in a neck-and-neck race probably came as no surprise to the participants of the symposium in the packed Semper Aula, either: highly motivated young scientists who all want to be at the forefront.

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