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Farsane Tabataba-Vakili | Meet the MCQSTians: in this series, we regularly feature members of the MCQST community.
"I think it is important to always work towards a goal"
Farsane Tabataba-Vakili is an MCQST Distinguished Postdoc who joined the group of Alexander Högele at LMU in 2020. We invited her to share what she enjoys most about her research project, snorkeling, and why academics is like a video game.
Can you briefly explain your research project?
In my research project, I study novel polaritonic devices with two-dimensional materials. Polaritons are quasi-particles of strong light-matter interaction that can be created by combining a microcavity photon with a semiconductor exciton. In our case, the semiconductor is an atomically thin layer of a transition metal dichalcogenide, which has some very exciting excitonic properties. These polaritons can then be confined and guided by modulating their potential landscape, for example by etching holes in an encapsulating dielectric layer. This has interesting applications for novel photonic and optoelectronic devices. For example, one could have very low-loss photonic waveguides in which light can flow around defects without backscattering. Such devices can also be used to study quantum many-body physics.
What does your day-to-day work look like?
I’m an experimentalist, so I spend a lot of time in the optics lab. In the lab, I’m either building new parts to my setup, doing alignment, or running measurement series at low-temperature. Then, I analyze the data I gathered, discuss it with colleagues, and make more measurements. Once a story is complete, I write a paper. I also supervise students who fabricate samples in the cleanroom.
What keeps you excited and makes you want to start work in the morning?
I would say it’s a desire to produce results, to make things work, to understand what is going on, and to develop new skills and expertise. The constant exchange with colleagues, the good coffee, and the extremely positive work atmosphere we have here certainly also helps with the motivation.
What inspired you to become a quantum scientist? Did you always know you wanted to be a scientist?
I certainly didn’t always know. As a child, I wanted to be a Japanese comic book artist, then a police officer, a science teacher, and finally a physicist. My older brother, who is also a physicist, definitely had a strong influence on me, even though our scientific interests very quickly diverged with me doing solid-state physics and him atmospheric and astrophysics. Another big influence, I have to admit, was the TV series “The Big Bang Theory”, which first aired when I was a teenager.
What drew you to Munich?
To be honest, it was mainly coincidence. I originally wanted to go to Sydney for my postdoc, but then the pandemic started and that became impossible. I am German, from Berlin, but I lived in California during part of my Master’s degree and I did my PhD in France, so was away for nearly 6 years. Yet, usually scientists leave their home country for their postdoc rather than returning. So initially I didn’t consider going back “home” as a viable option at this point in my scientific career and I still hope this will not have any repercussions for my future. But I really wanted to do photonics with two-dimensional materials, and with the pandemic staying in Europe seemed like the only viable option. There are several very good places for this type of research in Europe, Munich certainly being one of the best. I am really happy with the decision I made, especially because I have an amazing mentor, wonderful colleagues, and because the work atmosphere in our group is really positive and collaborative. I am really excited about my time here. I am very eager for the pandemic to end to be able to fully experience Munich and its Oktoberfest and to participate more group activities, which have been few and far between during the pandemic. I also learned a little while ago that my great-grand uncle was a professor at LMU from 1896 to 1925, so I guess I’m practically a local.
"I have an amazing mentor, wonderful colleagues, and...the work atmosphere in our group is really positive and collaborative."
What are the biggest challenges that you’ve faced, and how have you overcome them?
During the middle of my PhD, my advisor moved to southern France, while I stayed in Paris. Then my lab moved into a new building, which had some very serious infrastructural issues for the remaining two years of my PhD. For me this meant that I had to go back and forth between three cities to work in the labs of collaborators because there was no one place with all the equipment I needed. While I do enjoy traveling, having to travel every week for work is very stressful and challenging. I tried to make the best out of the situation, which also had some positive aspects. It allowed me to make friends in different places and to go skiing around Grenoble and diving at the Cote d’Azur.
A more recent challenge for me was being in a long-distance relationship during the heart of the pandemic. I would have never thought that traveling from Munich to Paris could be that complicated or even impossible at times. In retrospect, my first winter here was quite tough.
What was your most memorable moment or proudest achievement?
It was a series of events between summer and fall of 2018 that I sometimes refer to as the “golden months” of my PhD. During that time, I received a 15k€ scholarship from the French L’Oréal-Unesco for women in science foundation, I attended two conferences where I received a poster and a presentation award, I published one of my most-cited papers, I visited collaborators in Hong Kong for a few weeks, and I travelled through southern France and Japan. That was probably the most memorable time of my life so far.
Outside of science, what do you enjoy doing most?
I am very passionate about scuba diving and snorkeling. Every chance we get, my boyfriend and I travel to the coast to experience the wonders of the underwater world. The most exciting dives are in tropical waters or to historic shipwrecks and caves and I really enjoy sighting mantas, sharks, turtles, and octopi. I dream of living by the coast and having my own motor boat to be able to dive whenever I want. It is too bad that Munich isn’t at the coast.
I also very much enjoy playing board and card games with friends and acrylic painting.
Acrylic painting depicting a heterostructure of 2D materials with a 2D polariton lattice showing a topological edge state under optical pumping.
If you weren't a scientist, what do you think you would be doing now?
This is a surprisingly difficult question. I guess I would have been an engineer, as I briefly considered that as a choice for my Bachelor’s degree. I would probably be working in industry. Maybe in a different life, I would be a scuba instructor or a marine biologist, but I was introduced to the wonders of the underwater world fairly late.
What advice would you give to someone at the beginning of their science career?
I think it is important to always work towards a goal, even if that goal changes every couple of years because some other possibility suddenly becomes more attractive. I would also advise young scientists dealing with feelings of impostor syndrome to talk about it with friends and colleagues. Also, I think it is extremely important to be in a positive and collaborative work environment and to have a supportive advisor/mentor. So, if you find yourself in a toxic environment, try to change it or get out of it as quickly as possible.
I also want to pass on a piece of advice I got from my postdoc mentor a while ago, which is that the academic career is like a video game and that the best way to success is to do what you can at your current level to collect the points that you need to level up.