Overview

ProLOEWE faces

Professor Stefanie Dehnen Printed long-term data storage media

© Jochen Mogk

Professor Dehnen, you’re a scientist at the MOSLA LOEWE cluster, which is focusing on molecular storage for long-term archiving. Can you tell us something about the project and your work there?

With pleasure! The project involves developing new methods for securely and permanently storing data. We want to use this to counteract a "Digital Dark Age". To this end, we’re testing various molecular-based approaches in the MOSLA consortium. While most other projects are dealing with storage on the basis of DNA molecules, we’re working on inks as the long-term data storage medium. To this end, we’re trying to use cluster compounds, which have extremely non-linear optical properties, to create inks that differ in terms of their optical response after they have been stimulated by simple CW infrared laser diodes. As a result, we can create two- or multi-colour printing based on these very robust and durable molecules. We’ve now come very close to fulfilling this goal, but the pathway was full of obstacles because we had to deal with issues that we’d not been focusing on in the past. As a result, we spent many months testing the composition and tolerance of inks, especially the solvents used in the printer cartridges - and learnt a great deal in the process. We now know which components are crucial to determine the printability of a certain type of molecule and we’ve therefore taken a huge leap forward.

 

You studied chemistry, a subject that tends to be unpopular with most people at school. Do you have an idea what could be done to make chemistry and STEM subjects more attractive in general and for girls in particular?

In general, chemistry unfortunately has a poor reputation with many people and often has to contend with negative reporting in the press too – but almost everything that surrounds us is chemistry – the natural substances such as air, water or all kinds of biochemical substances or the many consumer goods that have become an integral part of our daily lives. It starts with the material for toothbrushes, sanitary towels and (currently) masks and includes high-tech materials for mobile phones or outdoor active clothing. In my opinion, we need to work to create an awareness of this fact and also remove the fear of chemistry both as a "dirty science" and as "incomprehensible school material". In fact, thanks to the knowledge and skills of chemists, it’s possible to make most of what the chemical industry produces (at least in this country) cleanly and safely. The constraints from public authorities are enormous and rapid progress is being made, especially in the area of sustainability. As far as education is concerned, schools need to start teaching natural sciences seriously as early as possible. Small children have an incredible ability to absorb these interrelationships – and just as it’s advisable for foreign language lessons not to start at an intermediate level (and therefore during puberty!), it would be helpful for physics and chemistry lessons to begin earlier and therefore in a more natural way too. This would also simplify the gender balance, since school interests are even more similar at an earlier age. We’re experiencing week after week the enthusiasm and impartiality with which young children in particular deal with the topic of chemistry, perform experiments and are being inspired by this wonderful subject at the Chemikum Marburg laboratories.

 

Even before you became involved in MOSLA, you were participating in other LOEWE projects as a scientist. What do you think makes the LOEWE programme so special and important for (pure) research?

The inter-university format is a special feature and this at least sets the LOEWE clusters apart from special research departments that are mostly locally based. As a result, those involved inevitably broaden their horizons and opportunities for cooperation open up, which would certainly not have been feasible before the start of the project. The programme is therefore making a crucial contribution to network building in Hesse – both interdisciplinary and intradisciplinary. Because so much importance is being attached to these aspects, the LOEWE clusters can open up a new dimension of joint “pure research with a vision”.

 

You’re very successful as a scientist, which is reflected, among other things, in a considerable number of prizes, including the Leibniz Prize 2022, and have achieved this even though you have a family: Did you always have the feeling that combining your work and your family is easy at this time? (And if not: What would need to change?)

No, it hasn't been easy and it still isn't, at least in our country. You have to have a good team within your family. Especially when the children are small, you not only need the solidarity of your partner, but also well-functioning and reliable childcare. And I don’t just mean "child custody" here, but individually suitable models to enable parents to work, but ones that really show some care. This is often like trying to square the circle – even if all the children are healthy and babysitters are available. We’ve probably tried out every model with our four children – and the model in question has always been suitable at the relevant time and for each child. Good fortune played a role here at times, but it also involved a great deal of hard work and having to go without this or that leisure activity – but I’d repeat the process each time and advise everyone to summon up the courage to do so. The good news is that much has happened during the last 30 years – both in the area of childcare and in the acceptance of working mothers or working parents.

 

Science usually goes far beyond what people view as a job in the everyday sense, but are there still other activities that help you find some sense of balance in your free time?

Definitely: I've been playing in one of the best university orchestras in our country since I started my first degree – as the first violinist for almost 20 years – which I consider to be a great blessing. Music plays a major role in my life otherwise too; chamber music and musical education for our children are important issues here. I also enjoy reading non-technical literature and being out and about in natural surroundings with my family whenever possible.