Work and lifestyle on the cutting edge. In our conversations with contemporaries, we examine the claims, clichés and ideals surrounding our workplaces. This time we speak with physicist Ulrike Diebold about her work in the laboratory and office, as well as the importance of teamwork in the sciences.
After completing her studies in technical physics at the Technical University of Vienna, Ulrike Diebold spent three years working on her post-doc at Rutgers University in New Jersey (USA). In 1993 she was hired by Tulane University in New Orleans, where she was promoted to full professor in 2001 and was appointed to the "Yahoo! Founder Chair in Science and Engineering." Throughout this period, Diebold completed a series of research stays at renowned universities in the USA and Europe. In early 2010, Diebold came back to Vienna, where she is Professor for Surface Physics, in addition to holding a research professorship at Tulane University. She has already received multiple awards including the Wittgenstein Prize, which is one of Austria’s most prestigious awards for the sciences.
Ms Diebold, how can we imagine a typical workday in the life of a physicist?
It depends completely on which stage of professional development the physicist is currently in: as a student and post-doc, I was primarily in the laboratory, taking measurements, repairing things for an experiment (it’s a complicated construction, and something is always breaking), or analysing data. As you get more professional experience, you take on more and more managerial tasks. Today, as a professor, I spend the majority of my time communicating: meeting with my students, discussing their data, writing scientific publications (and correcting articles by my colleagues), or communicating with colleagues all over the world via email or Skype. I’m also on the road quite often, going to conferences and giving lectures. And then there is the teaching, of course. I enjoy giving lectures. There is a lot of commissioned work, but I enjoy that less.
Do you have anything resembling a main work space? Or maybe two spaces – a classic office for organisational work and a laboratory for research?
I have a classic, lovingly furnished office that I like very much. When I’m at the Technical University, that’s where I spend about two-thirds of my working hours. I spend the rest of the day discussing things with my colleagues – in the laboratory or in their offices, often in our coffee room.
The current topic of our magazine is the team – we are asking why someone works in a team, how cooperation functions, and how it doesn’t. So we want to ask you: how many people do you work closely with? And what significance does this team have for your research?
There are about 20 people in my own working group. I work very closely with them. Teamwork is important – we have six laboratories, and people have to share their time for experiments. Usually there are several colleagues working on one topic – maybe a post-doc, a doctoral student, and a diploma student, or someone who is working with us to write their bachelor’s thesis. On top of that, we have cooperative ventures with many other working groups here in Vienna and abroad. We primarily conduct experiments, and it’s important for us to work with colleagues who do theoretical work and can model our measurement results. If you look at the publications, you can see that our work is practically never done by a single person – there are always at least four, sometimes over ten, people involved, and they are listed as co-authors.
What makes a good team?
That everyone is happy about the success of the others. There are two ways to get ahead – either you strive upwards on your own, or you step on the people below. We have a very comradely atmosphere. Everyone helps each other, and it’s relaxed and laid-back. When new, young students first arrive, they are often shy and uptight. It’s great to see how they gradually relax and become more casual.
Do you think that there are special rules for working together that have to be followed to facilitate successful cooperation?
Absolute honesty and propriety in dealing with others. We scientists live primarily from our ideas. You have to be able to trust that others won’t ‘steal’ your ideas. This basis of trust is extremely important; you have to be able to rely on the others. Do good work and honour the good work done by others. And to respond promptly, which shows that you respect the other person.
In your opinion, what requirements are there for a workplace and beyond, for real innovation to take place?
In our field, technical equipment is very important – I can have an innovative idea, but if I can’t turn it into reality, then it doesn’t help me at all. Excellent equipment and technical infrastructure are the alpha and omega of experimental physics. But even with the best equipment, you’ll only deliver mediocre results if you’re not creative – and creativity only flourishes in an environment that has a lot of communication and is free of fear.
How important is actual human contact for scientific work? Do you think it makes a difference whether you work together in the same space or only communicate virtually?
Human contact is irreplaceable. Virtual communication is good, but you only get a percentage of what you gain by direct, real communication. In my working group, for example, we go to the canteen every day together. Not everyone is always there, but we always go at the same time so that everyone who wants to can come along. Later we have coffee together. Personal contact is extraordinarily important. That’s why I travel so much – to communicate directly with colleagues from several other countries. And if a cooperation partner from abroad comes to visit us in Vienna for a few days, we often manage to get much further ahead in that time than we would at a distance over an entire year.
What do you think makes a good workplace?
The workplace is not so important for me: I can concentrate well; when I am working, I really get down to business. Of course it’s nice if it’s quiet, in my office for example. But I also work while travelling, at the airport, and on the tram. Sometimes that’s not so good: I’ve often been so concentrated on my work that I’ve missed my stop! Or even gotten on the wrong train and only notice when we arrive at the end station.
Are there certain rituals that you consider important in your everyday work routine?
I drink an unbelievable amount of coffee, and the espresso machine is right in the laboratory area. This means that I automatically spend a lot of time around the experiments and with students.
What is the most important tool for your work?
My laptop. I have all of my data on it, and I drag it around with me all the time. I can work with it everywhere, in the office, at home, at the airport...
What is your favourite activity in the context of work?
To discuss new measurement results and to figure out with my colleagues and cooperation partners how to explain ‘strange’ data. I find that incredibly exciting. You have to apply all of your creative power and everything you know. Nature surprises us again and again.
What would you wish for in your work and your workplace?
That it stays the way it is – at the moment everything is running extremely well, and I enjoy my work immensely.
Thank you for the interview!