Combining light with magnetism
The fall of the Soviet Union made him question the value of a science education. But he found his way back to physics via Brazil and from there made his way to Gothenburg via France and Germany. Alexandre Dmitriev is used to crossing borders between nations – and between separate disciplines such as light and magnetism.
“Being a researcher is fantastic! I’m constantly amazed at how exciting the things we do are.”
Dmitriev chose to meet up at J.A. Pripps, a pub and café located in Chalmers’ student union building, which buzzes with the voices of students, staff and visitors. He is, however, somewhat saddened by the latest renovation of the premises.
“There used to be large booths you could sit in here. It was perfect for spontaneous meetings and conversations with research colleagues that you happened to encounter.”
He has had his breakfast here most mornings for more than ten years now, first as a researcher at Chalmers and now as a Professor in the Department of Physics at the University of Gothenburg. Dmitriev, or Sasha as he is normally called by friends and acquaintances, lives in Örgryte with his wife Rosmarie Friemann, a researcher in biochemistry, together with the couple’s two children. He describes the family’s situation as ‘extremely privileged’ – they work in exciting fields, love Gothenburg, travel a great deal and play tennis. But the path through life that led Dmitriev to end up here has not been a straight one – far from it.
Surrounded by the natural sciences
He was born in 1975 in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, in the former Soviet Union. Both his parents were physicists, but Dmitriev never felt compelled to choose to follow in their footsteps. It just happened that way. You could call it the path of least resistance.
“I loved history, art and literature when I was at school, and I read the classic Russian novels when I was young. But I also proved to have an aptitude for math and, through that, physics. In addition, I was surrounded by the natural sciences via my parents and all their friends who were all researchers, too. Physics was quite simply the most comfortable choice.”
Everything rolled along smoothly – until it suddenly went off the rails. In 1992 Dmitriev was in the first year of the Physics programme at Rostov State University and was ranked among the highest in his class. But as the Soviet Union disintegrated, the entire foundations upon which Russian society was built radically changed. It became more difficult to make a living as a physicist.
Started working to help provide for the family
“My parents lost a large proportion of their income. Everything collapsed. I stopped focusing on my studies and started working instead to help provide for the family. We’d lived in a communist country with everything that entailed, and suddenly lots of new things came all at once – private banks, telecommunications companies and so on. A few friends and I started a graphic design studio where we produced logotypes and corporate identity for all kinds of companies. We were also involved in investment banking, and then started a travel agency. There was a business boom in Russia, but it was impossible to earn a living as an academic.”
At the end of the 1990s Dmitriev’s parents had had enough and did what many other Russian researchers did – moved abroad. They ended up in Florianópolis in Brazil. Dmitriev followed them there – a place he likens to a tropical paradise, and it was there that he took up physics again and started taking courses in theoretical electrodynamics. A year later, the family moved back to Europe. Dmitriev was admitted as a doctoral student at the Max Planck Institute in Stuttgart, Germany, and his parents found jobs in Grenoble, France, where they still live. It was on a visit to Grenoble that Dmitriev met his wife Rosmarie, and it was thanks to her that he moved to Sweden after the defence of his doctoral thesis.
Bridging the gap between nanophotonics and magnetism
Dmitriev has brought this flexibility and willingness to try new things, and cross boundaries, with him into his own research. The projects he conducts with his research team at the University of Gothenburg are aimed at revolutionising the data storage of the future, by making, for instance, cloud service memories 100 times smaller and ten thousand times faster than they are today.
“We take light and force it into the spaces that it can’t normally reach. This makes the light interact with molecules and nanostructures in new ways which don’t occur naturally.”
People have found means of influencing the way light behaves for hundreds of years. One example of this is the use of stained-glass windows in churches. Depending on the substance added to the glass, and the size of the particles, certain wavelengths of light are prevented from passing through. In other words, the sheet of glass breaks up the white daylight and creates the effect of coloured glass . The phenomenon is called surface plasmon resonance.
“We’ve now reached a point where we have the luxury of being able to control this type of phenomenon precisely to our own specifications. We can design how the light should interact down to the nanoscale, and this opens up entirely new opportunities for the fundamental science and applications.”
This is where the significant crossing of boundaries comes in. Dmitriev and his colleagues use their research to bridge the gap between two traditionally separate fields within physics: nanophotonics and magnetism.
“We make light controllable with the aid of magnetism, and, seen from the other perspective, influence magnetism with the help of light. All this is done on the nanoscale. It’s a great feeling, being able to demonstrate that you can switch between these often separate fields and find points where they intersect.”
Ensuring the well-being of colleagues
During the interview Dmitriev often returns to the topic of the people around him: his family, his friends and colleagues and the people he invites onto his research team. He likes to highlight the importance he attaches to exchanges and collaboration, and the value of learning things from one another regardless of that person’s background or the position they hold in the hierarchy. Well-being and the working environment are issues he considers are all too easily neglected in the world of research, where those in favour are treated as geniuses and sometimes allowed to trample over others in pursuit of the next major breakthrough.
“Within the academic world it’s still not mainstream to learn how to handle the role of manager, which becomes more and more demanding the higher up the career ladder you climb. Instead, you constantly hear that your ideas, the research funding you’ve obtained and your number of publications are the most important things to focus on.”
Dmitriev, however, considers ‘keeping it real’ and ensuring the well-being of colleagues at least as important as pushing for more results.
“I don’t want to insult any geniuses, but the truth is that similar ideas have a tendency to emerge independently of one another in different places on Earth. We aren’t such unique thinkers as we’d like to believe. Admittedly it’s fantastic to be a creative visionary, but it’s not worth sacrificing the well-being of employees for ambition and ideas. As a professor, you are both a scientist and a manager. Never underestimate the importance of being a good person, as opposed to just being an excellent researcher.”
An international perspective on the research world
Having lived and conducted research in various countries throughout his adult life, and through a series of international exchanges (including at Stanford in the United States and Christchurch in New Zealand), Dmitriev has developed an international perspective on the research world.
“What does ‘national research’ even mean? Within physics, the concept is irrelevant. Light behaves the same wherever you are on the planet. My family and I travel a great deal thanks to my and my wife’s jobs. This part of our careers allows us to become part of a much bigger picture. As a researcher you’re part of a worldwide network of people striving for the same things.”
He concludes that his experiences have shown that, regardless of where they come from, people involved in science are more similar than different – and that it’s a privilege to be able to work as a physicist.
“Being a researcher is fantastic! I’m constantly amazed at how exciting the things we do are. It’s a creative and rewarding occupation in which you have the chance to make the world a slightly better place.”
Text: Carolina Svensson
This article was originally published at Gothenburg Physics Centre (GPC)
Born: In 1975 in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, (in the former Soviet Union)
Lives: In Örgryte, Gothenburg.
Family: Married to Rosmarie Friemann, a researcher in biochemistry. Children: Hilding, aged 11, and Liv, aged 7.
Job: Professor of Physics at the University of Gothenburg.
Career in brief: Holds a Physics degree from Rostov State University (now Southern Federal University), then worked as a graphic designer, investment banker and ran a travel agency. Earned his doctorate at the EPFL (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne) and the Max Planck Institute in Stuttgart and then moved to Gothenburg to work as a researcher at Chalmers. Since 2016 he has been a professor at the University of Gothenburg.
Leisure interests: Tennis! A self-taught enthusiast who plays in his spare time, he has been a great fan of the sport since he was a child. His favourite player who is still playing today is Roger Federer, his all-time favourite is Andre Agassi. Also occasionally does graphic design and prefers to listen to electronic dance music (EDM).
Favourite place for inspiration: J.A. Pripps café in Chalmers’ student union building. “This is where I’ve started my working day countless time over the past ten years. You always bump into somebody interesting to talk to – it’s like a networking hub.”
Most proud about: “My children. Is that a predictable answer? In any case, it’s true!”
Motivation: Curiosity. “It’s really great to learn new things all the time and to be able to ‘force’ nature to do things it hasn’t done before. Small discoveries can lead to major breakthroughs without you realising it.”
First memory of physics: “Mum and Dad used to prepare posters about their research at home in our apartment. That was what you did before PowerPoint – illustrated and wrote by hand on large sheets of paper which were then displayed on the stage during presentations. I remember how they spread paper on the floor throughout the apartment and how careful my dad was to make the posters as neat as possible.”
Best thing about being a researcher: “The fact that it’s a creative profession, not like a normal job. You can liken it to being a theatre director or artist. It’s incredibly exciting!”
Challenges of the job: “The combination of controlling and managing the work and creativity. It’s easy to get obsessed by one or the other. You have to make sure all the time that there is a balance between the two aspects, and that you are not burdening people with too much work.”
Dream for the future: “On the one hand, I have low ambitions – I’m not aiming to have a huge research team with masses of research funding or administrative influence. But, on the other, I want to tackle major issues affecting humanity and nature, and I think we’ve got the chance to do that.”