The Lightwave Researcher: Zsuzsanna Heiner, a physicist at the HU Graduate School SALSA, excites molecules by shooting them with lasers

30. April 2019

The Lightwave Researcher

Zsuzsanna Heiner, a physicist at the HU Graduate School SALSA, excites molecules by shooting them with lasers

Zsuzsanna Heiner © WISTA Management GmbH

Zsuzsanna Heiner. Credit: © WISTA Management GmbH

On some days, she stays until after midnight. She does so when she has been consumed by an idea, or a problem is stubbornly refusing to be solved. On days like these, she tells herself “No, not tomorrow – now!” This is one of the reasons why Zsuzsanna Heiner ends up spending most of her time at the flat-roofed lab building in the courtyard of the School of Analytical Sciences Adlershof (SALSA) of Berlin’s Humboldt-Universität. “I feel very lucky to be able to work like this,” she says.

Hailing from Sopron near Lake Neusiedl in Western Hungary, she was also lucky to have a physics teacher who knew how to inspire young people. She let her students experiment and go outside to watch the sky and the meteorites in summer. What would Zsuzsanna Heiner have done without her? In ninth grade, she was still fully bent on a medical doctor’s degree. It all worked out differently.

Instead, a far-away asteroid in outer space now bears the physics teacher’s name. When the young student enrolled at University of Szeged, astronomy became her first love. Her master’s thesis dealt with the issue, loosely speaking, of what happens when two different-sized suns in the universe approach each other. The discovery of 13 hitherto unknown dwarf planets drifting through space between Mars and Jupiter was a by-product of this research. Heiner named them after Hungarian astronomists – as well as her mentor from school.

Later, her scientific focus moved away from the largest conceivable entities - to the tiniest. The question she has been fascinated by until this day, she says, is “How light interacts with molecules from different materials and how can we increase our knowledge about them?” Loosely speaking, again, the answer is: when a laser hits a molecule, its atoms are set in periodic motion causing the molecule to vibrate. The way a molecule vibrates, makes possible insights into its specific properties.

This “vibrational spectroscopy” makes it possible to precisely depict the structure and location of molecules. Heiner has developed a specialised laser technique in Adlershof that is able to generate images in just a few seconds that used to take up to half an hour. She did so first at the HU’s institute of chemistry, then at SALSA in Adlershof, where the 40-year-old researcher has now been working since October 2013.

Together with her husband, who is also an Adlershof-based physicist, and her two daughters, she feels at home in Köpenick. The district’s many bodies of water are reminiscent of the Balaton and a great backdrop to her 12k running route. Her neighbours know her homeland well from their numerous vacations. She likes to take her bike to the park landscapes and mansions of nearby Potsdam. However, she freely admits that she does not believe in the division between work and life: “Physics, chemistry and astronomy are hobbies of mine. I feel like I made my hobby my career.”

By Winfried Dolderer for Adlershof Journal

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