Interview with Thomas Hausmaninger

The award-winning junior researcher on his love for experimental projects, communicating bold ideas to the public and how universities can foster creativity

February 6, 2020
Thomas Hausmaninger
Source: Kirstin Vonderstein

Thomas Hausmaninger is a researcher in optical spectroscopy, the study of how matter interacts with electromagnetic radiation, at the Centre for Metrology at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland. In November, he was awarded €100,000 (£85,000) for winning a global research pitching competition for postdoctoral researchers. The contest was organised by Slush and Skolar, a Finnish community of academics, research funders and science communications professionals.

Where and when were you born? 
Salzburg, Austria in 1987.

How has this shaped who you are? 
My parents often took us out for mountain hikes. I loved to look down from a mountaintop and see the city from this perspective. I was fascinated by seeing how all the places were connected by streets and how tiny everything seemed from up there. Maybe, therefore, I also want to see the bigger picture and understand how things connect after diving into the details of a research question.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
I was fascinated by the world of theoretical physics and enjoyed seeing how one could suddenly understand complex natural phenomena after getting used to a certain formalism or concept. However, I didn’t have the patience to go deep into theoretical physics unless I really needed it. On the other hand, when it came to experimental physics and experimental projects, I could never let it be “good enough” and always wanted to improve things and try yet another idea to further optimise an experimental setup, a code, or a measurement procedure.

Your winning research idea is to create a breathalyser to understand plants better. Why is this important?
Plants are an essential and versatile source of food for humans. The climate crisis is reducing resources like water and, at the same time, the world population is growing. This implies that the food crisis is becoming more and more severe. One solution is to grow plants indoors in vertical farms that can save orders of magnitude in water and valuable land. Indoor farming allows for precise control of growing conditions such as light, water, temperature and nutrition. However, the condition of the plants is still controlled manually. With the plant breathalyser one can automatically monitor the plants and grow more food with fewer resources. For example, it will be possible to avoid crop failure by early pest detection and save resources by optimising the nutrition supply.

What do you think will be the biggest challenge in bringing this project to fruition?
Understanding how the gases emitted by the plants are connected to their metabolism and their needs is certainly a challenge; learning a new language takes time. Furthermore, in the vertical farms the signals are diluted by convection. Therefore, sensitive detectors are required to measure them. We are facing the challenge of identifying suitable biomarkers in the gas around the plants and developing the sensitive measurement techniques needed to measure them in real-time in indoor farms. The combination of these two challenges also make this project fun, since they require a lot of interdisciplinary work between engineering and biology.

What other interesting projects are you working on?
Currently I’m part of the environmental metrology team at VTT where we develop laser spectrometry-based trace-gas sensors for various applications. This includes real-time monitoring of beer brewing that reveals how complex this biological process is and how strongly it gets affected by slight changes of the starting parameters. Furthermore, we are also developing monitoring instruments to make nuclear power plant decommissioning safer. Such applications require sensitive field-deployable detectors. I’m currently applying for funding for development of a field-deployable trace-gas detector with unprecedented sensitivity that can detect gases present at concentrations below parts-per-quadrillion levels.

What is the biggest misconception about your field of study?
That it is impossible for outsiders to understand what we are working on and that we are doing research on things that are not useful for any practical purposes. I think one reason for this is that it is often difficult to predict the outcome of fundamental research. It is challenging for scientists to communicate science because it is their job to be critical and avoid drawing conclusions that are not sound. However, I think scientists should be less afraid of having bold ideas about future applications of their research and telling people about these visions.

What have you found to be the hardest part about being an early career researcher? 
Workplaces that offer freedom in research and at the same time good working conditions are difficult to find. In addition, many world-leading institutes have a reputation of strong internal competition instead of strong teamwork. That is why I left the track of pure fundamental research towards more applied research. In this area, I found more options for doing excellent research combined with good working conditions. It is tough to make these decisions since they can strongly affect both your future career as well as your private life.

How can universities create an environment that enables creativity?
Freedom, trust and safety enables researchers to unfold their full potential. The necessary challenges should come from scientific discussions with colleagues and not from the career pressure. Universities should trust that the vast majority of researchers are eager to have the best ideas and to do the best research. Universities should also support researchers at all stages to make the right decisions and find their way to success. To be creative, scientists should get the time to do what they do best – that is to focus on their research.

If you weren’t an academic, what do you think you would be doing?
I would build my own home laboratory to do fun experiments and to be astonished by nature.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com


Appointments

Jonathan Holloway has been appointed president of Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. He is currently provost at Northwestern University, where he is also a professor of history and African American studies. Previously, he was the dean of Yale College and Edmund S. Morgan professor of African American studies, history, and American studies at Yale University. Mark Angelson, chair of the Rutgers board of governors, said Professor Holloway was “thoughtful, visionary, inclusive and decisive. He leads with remarkable integrity and is just the right person to build upon Rutgers’ long tradition as an academic and research powerhouse.” He will take up the position on 1 July.

David Maguire has been named as interim principal of the University of Dundee. Professor Maguire will take up the role on 1 February, for a period of seven months. The former vice-chancellor of the University of Greenwich has been appointed following the resignation of Andrew Atherton. Professor Maguire, a former pro vice-chancellor for research and enterprise at Birmingham City University, said that he was “committed to helping Dundee maintain momentum and press forward with its aspirational strategic plan”.

Ruth Ayres has been named as pro vice-chancellor for education at Aston University. The biologist has held senior positions at the universities of Warwick, Salford and Derby. Most recently she was associate pro vice-chancellor for teaching, learning and academic governance at Derby.

The University of Waikato made two senior appointments: Sarah Strasser will be joining from the University of Queensland to take up the position of dean of Te Huataki Waiora School of Health, and Roger Strasser will be taking up the role of professor of rural health at the school.

Jonathan Wolff has been appointed as the Alfred Landecker professor of values and public policy at the University of Oxford. He was formerly Blavatnik chair in public policy at Oxford, and dean of arts and humanities at UCL.

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