He is described as a "volcano of scientific ideas" by Eric Bakker, his PhD supervisor at the University of Geneva. Xiaojiang Xie laughs a little when he hears this on the phone in his hometown of Shenzen, to which he returned two years ago. Prior to that, he had been a researcher for five years in Geneva and Paris, where he launched a career that would make the world sit up and take notice.
As a postdoc, he had already notched up 20 publications as lead author. But China, too, and the fast-emerging Southern University of Science and Technology in particular, was casting around for such young research talent. He would also have been happy to stay in Europe, he says, but admits to being too impatient – or the institutions in China were simply quicker off the mark than those in the West. Since they offered the 30-year old Xiaojiang a position as Associate Professor, he is now researching in his native land again, where the opportunities are wonderful, but where the competition is also very stiff: "There are many young researchers like me who are looking for an opportunity to establish themselves".
His first introduction to his area of research was through the work of Eric Bakker in Geneva. He was inspired by the application of analytical chemistry to all kinds of chemical sensors. But his work then took him in a totally different direction, to "light harvesting", as it is poetically named by experts. Biology has many different ways of taking advantage of sunlight. Photosynthesis is just one of these chemical systems that an organism can use to convert sunlight into useable energy. Other means have structural similarities with the sensors which Xiaojiang was researching. And suddenly, the volcano erupted with a totally new idea: what would happen if one redesigned these light sensors so that their primary task was not to measure, but to produce energy? With this idea, he had stumbled on an entirely new method which, with any luck, might one day be used to produce innovative new solar cells.
Would Xiaojiang describe these intellectual eruptions as his special quality as a researcher? He hesitates – of course he always has new ideas and quite often he tests them out himself in a laboratory experiment. But at the end of the day, he really does not want to put himself in the limelight too much. At the end of our conversation he says, "Should I tell you the secret of my success? It's all those lively discussions I had with my colleagues and supervisors." If he had to explain to young researchers how to achieve a career like his own, he would have to say: by meeting open minds who make it possible to think outside the box. He met such open minds in Geneva, for which he will always be grateful.
Xiaojiang Xie was awarded the Prix Schläfli 2018 in Chemistry by the Swiss Academy of Sciences for the article "Photocurrent generation based on a light-driven proton pump in an artificial liquid membrane", which he published during his doctoral studies at the University of Geneva. He is now researching at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzen.
The storage of radioactive waste, the pollination of plants, the use of solar energy, and the mathematical parsing of knots and surfaces – the Swiss Academy of Sciences (SCNAT) will honour the four most important discoveries and solutions by young researchers at Swiss universities with the Prix Schläfli 2018 in Bern on 25 May. Alexandre Bagnoud (Geosciences), Livio Liechti (Mathematics), Hester Sheehan (Biology) and Xiaojiang Xie (Chemistry) win the prize for discoveries made while working on their dissertations. The Prix Schläfli has been awarded since 1866.Image: Manu Friederich
Those who frequent nightclubs know that when they wear white, their clothes take on a special glow in UV light. But researchers took a long time to realise that plants have a very similar "nightlife": the ways in which the colours of flowers determine which pollinating insects and birds they will attract have long been an important field of research, but the researchers – who mostly worked during normal working hours – only focused on the situation during daylight, on bright and vibrant flowers and eyes that specialise in seeing colour. In her research work, Hester Sheehan also looked at the way this phenomenon works during the night: boring white petunias that appear midnight black in the UV spectrum. An eye-catcher for nectar-hunting moths that are active during the night.
Not far from St. Ursanne, the idyllic medieval village on the Doubs, there is another, quite different visitor attraction: swisstopo's Mont Terri rock laboratory. The microbiologist Alexandre Bagnoud often visited this laboratory between 2012 and 2016, not as a layman curious about optimum conditions for storing radioactive waste, but as an active researcher.Image: Alexandre Bagnoud
We could start with flamenco. Or with doughnuts. But neither of these would really help us to understand Livio Liechti's research. "On the spectra of mapping classes and the 4-genera of positive knots" is the title of the thesis which he submitted a year ago – and anybody who can visualise this has to be a member of a select circle of specialists. Whereby "visualise" is a fairly apt term. "I like the fact that the objects of my field of research are quite visual," says Liechti. He thinks of them three-dimensionally – and his mathematical thought processes also often work on this visual level, and not only in formulas, figures and logical sentences.Image: Livio Liechti