Ralph Spolenak became full professor at ETH Zürich in 2014 after a term as tenured associate professor from 2010 on and as assistant professor (tenure track) and chair of the laboratory for nanometallurgy starting in 2004. He is currently serving as the head of the Department of Materials and the deputy chairman of the Board of the Scientific Center for Optical and Electron Microscopy (ScopeM), which he led for four years. Before he served as the director of the Materials Research Center of ETH Zürich (a materials network encompassing 80 research groups) for six years, Spolenak, a native Austrian, studied physics at the Technical University of Vienna, Austria. After completing his diploma thesis in the field of solid state physics in 1995, and a brief research term at the University of Pavia, Italy, he moved to Stuttgart, Germany, to commence his PhD work at the Max-Planck-Institute for Metals Research and the University of Stuttgart. In 1999 he was awarded the Max Planck Society's Otto Hahn medal for his achievements during his thesis on alloying effects in electromigration.
Spolenak became a postdoctoral member of technical staff at Bell Laboratories, Lucent Technologies in the USA. There he was working on the mechanical properties of thin metal films. During this time, he became a member of the principal research team to establish the first dedicated Laue microdiffraction beamline at the Advanced Light Source, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories. After a year as a visiting scientist at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, he returned to the Max-Planck-Institute in 2002 as a group leader.
The main research interests of Spolenak's group are the mechanical properties of metals at the nanoscale and how these properties can be influenced by metallurgical approaches. The combination of testing, characterization and modeling are essential for making significant advances in this field. This comprises the development of new, mostly synchrotron based, in situ testing methods that allow for analysis at the nanoscale.
Recently, his research has expanded to size effects in all materials classes and all properties. Recent research highlights include switchable semiconducting strong interference layers in the visible range at the nanometer length scale, color tuning in precious intermetallics, strain engineering to approaching the direct bandgap in Ge, microstructure tuning by ion irradiation, size effects in high entropy alloys and industry projects on coatings for biomedical materials and contact materials. Lately, a strong focus has become additive manufacturing of multimaterials and then nanoscale and self-healing of thin films.
Ralph Spolenak has been active in MRS since his early days in academic research. He has organized several symposia and tutorials at MRS Meetings, culminating in becoming one of the Meeting Chairs of the 2016 MRS Fall Meeting. He is a member of Swiss and German Materials Societies as well as the Austrian Physical Society.
I see materials research in a holistic fashion. In materials research the classical distinctions between materials classes and fields are blurring both in research and industry. Consequently, the interfaces between materials classes gain importance, but also materials need to be seen again more from a processing-microstructure/architecture-property perspective. Similar properties and processing routes apply to many materials classes and thus the use of a common terminology would be highly desirable. As a member of the Board I would strongly foster an increase in the interaction between the different materials communities, which I have already done at my home institution by leading a networking platform that encompassed 80 research groups in materials.
MRS is for me the leading materials society in the world and I value its culture of including all aspects of diversity in both its leadership and also its members. Having representation from all over the world is essential for establishing the leadership of MRS of a prolonged period of time. While this requires meetings to happen all over the world, the smart usage of modern communication means should make it possible to participate in a meeting also on a virtual level. MRS can be a role model for, on the one hand, minimizing CO2 emissions by air travel and, on the other hand, making meetings accessible for researchers that do not have the financial means to travel and thus embracing science in developing countries.
We need to ensure that the generations after us are ready to pick up the baton. Consequently, we need to assist science teachers in creating many sparks in our children’s eyes for the marvels of science. In addition to the classical STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) we should also adopt the STEAM approach were the Arts are added as an additional pillar to foster creativity. This is already done at MRS meetings in the form of competitions and symposia, but it could be strengthened in the teaching aspect. In a world where knowledge lies in our palms in the shape of a smartphone, understanding and creativity becomes so much more important.
Materials are the key enablers for all technologies, however, in many cases neither the public nor the typical high school student is aware of this fact. MRS does a great job in promoting materials, but as we as a materials community are facing an uphill battle for public perception our efforts need to be intensified. To be ready for the next decades MRS needs to be global, diverse, inclusive, inspiring and loud.