Professor Andrieu-Brunsen, you came to the Technical University of Darmstadt in 2011 as a junior professor and have been conducting research on intelligent membranes within the framework of the LOEWE cluster known as iNAPO. What exactly are you working on? We are focusing on membranes and porous separating layers and their transport properties. These kinds of layers are interesting for many technological applications – for example, sensor technology, water treatment or energy conversion - three topics that are extremely relevant for the future. In the context of water treatment and sensor technology, water management concepts for the future are now being discussed – based on the UN Climate Resolution in 2015. The issue here mainly involves conserving resources, including the possibility of reusing and recycling valuable materials found in waste water. Contamination by metallic nanoparticles and their decomposition products, which make their way into sewage sludge and therefore the natural cycle when people wash antibacterial-coated clothing, for example, is becoming an increasingly serious problem. In addition to other goals, we would like to use our research to help us recognise these valuable materials more quickly so that they can be recycled, even before they are diluted with large amounts of waste water. This requires selective sensor and filter materials. Functional nanopores, which transport individual components in a selective and stable manner and can be controlled in terms of time, could make an important contribution here.
Like the other LOEWE projects, iNAPO is also involved in pure research. It is not always clear to the general public why this is so important for everyone. Can you explain the reasons? As I outlined at the beginning, our research projects often focus on assigning functions to nanopores or modifying them in such a way that controllable new transport properties are created so that they can be used to protect the environment, for instance. We have spent the last few years working on elements like adjusting the charge density in pores by controlling the filling of pores with polymers, for example. This may sound like paying too much attention to detail, but in order to make a vision come true – such as achieving selective or focused transport operations in technological pores, in our case – it is extremely important to deal with the most minute pieces of the puzzle in the research topic that you are handling. This also involves answering a large number of fundamental questions before performing the actual work: how is it possible to control the amount of polymer in these small pores? What kind of access is available for these functional nanometre-sized pores? And how do you succeed in characterising the functionalized pores, which are so small that technology is stretched to the limit to provide solutions? We can only start developing applications in a rational and non-random manner after we have answered all these questions and we have understood the interrelationships.
After your doctorate at the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, you spent a year as a post-doctoral research fellow at the CNEA (National Atomic Energy Commission) in Buenos Aires, Argentina. What was the most important thing that you picked up during this time professionally and personally? Professionally, the time that I spent in Argentina laid the foundation for my research on functional nanopores and membranes. I had two outstanding mentors in Galo Soler-Illia and Omar Azzaroni, both professionally and personally; I had met them during my time at the Max Planck Institute in Mainz under Prof. Wolfgang Knoll. They and their research groups introduced me to nano-porous materials and strongly influenced and supported me in my ongoing academic career. We are still in contact today. Personally, I am interested in language and history. You can learn a great deal about both in Argentina. I was naturally able to improve my Spanish. Historically, Argentina is a very complex and informative country where the past tangibly affects the present even now and it has many links to its own, German history. Personal contacts and friendships developed too and they are very valuable to me. Spending a fairly long time in a country always makes you reflect on your own ideas. That helps you to grow personally and professionally.
At the age of 29, you were already a (junior) professor at the Department of Chemistry and you received numerous awards and prizes immediately after your doctoral fellowship from the German Academic Scholarship Foundation. Where do you gain your great enthusiasm for what you do, what motivates you? A sense of curiosity is the most important incentive for me and the fascination that the topic of functional nanopores holds for me. I also really enjoy managing projects and training students and PhD candidates. Seeing progress in projects and personal development, being able to support them and develop myself in the course of this are all aspects that motivate me so that I enjoy going to the office every morning.
Alongside your professional success, you have given birth to two children during the last two years. We are writing this in 2019: would you say that it is easy for (young) families to reconcile their family life and a career nowadays? I would not say that it is easy and unfortunately you still have to explain your situation far too often; but excellent and reliable childcare, short distances and very flexible employers for both parents are good prerequisites for being able to integrate both well in everyday life. I have never really viewed this as a choice between one or the other. The work culture in general, as well as the quality and quantity of childcare in Germany, viewed as a whole, certainly need to be significantly improved.
- Professor at the TU Darmstadt, Department of Macromolecular Chemistry - Smart Membranes