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School of Soft Matter Research

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The School of Soft Matter Research started its research activities in 2008 with an agenda set by the authors of the original FRIAS proposal. The spectrum of applications would include intelligent, adaptive and addressable materials (“smart materials“), as well as bio-hybrids for sensory tasks, new materials for lightweight constructions, medicine, micro-optics, systems for the use of regenerative energy, and new catalysts for the production of functional elements and polymers. When an expert would scan the titles of the School’s impressive number (more than 500) of journal publications, they would find that most of the topics that were listed in the original proposal are covered, but more importantly, many more hot topics were added during the ensuing years. When established and emerging experts of soft matter are brought together, that is what happens: through discussions and workshops, people inspire each other, and the invention process takes over, resulting in novel breakthrough ideas that no-one could have predicted.

One focus of the School was to advance basic research in soft matter microtechnologies. A fascinating approach involved the directed re-assembly of single-stranded DNA into unique ‘artificial’ three-dimensional nanostructures. Ultimately, the hope was to create automatic on-chip factories that would assemble nanostructures on demand, to be later attached onto substrates to perform special functions, such as forming nano-electronic circuits. Another project was dedicated to the research of bio-fouling, with the aim of creating special polymeric surfaces that inhibit the onset of fouling. By making these interfaces compatible with other manufacturing processes, the research aimed to make surfaces selectively incompatible with a range of bacteria, for applications in hospitals and dental clinics. Another research line focused on creating tiny on-chip magnetic resonance sensors, for example to investigate nanolitre quantities of chemical or biochemical analyte. The long term goal was to produce a lab-on-a-chip NMR and MRI facility with which to do high throughput magnetic resonance characterisation of cells. Such systems could for example help biologists to monitor the metabolism of small clusters of cells during the screening of chemical agents, or to help investigate the progression of diseases.

These research activities at the FRIAS School of Soft Matter Research were intimately connected with research lines in the faculties and rely on infrastructure provided by the departments. To make this a win-win situation, the School has invested about € 3 Million to improve equipment for the soft matter community within the university. Cooperation with the Fraunhofer Institutes in Freiburg and universities in the Upper Rhine Valley was fostered. One initiative rooted in the work of two Junior Fellows on quantum effects in biological light harvesting systems and on conducting polymers for photoactive layers. Together with the Fraunhofer Institute on Solar Energy Systems (ISE) the School organized in 2009 an international workshop on “Quantum Efficiency: From Biology to Material Science” which evolved into a weekly colloquium at FRIAS exploring the prospects of improving organic solar cells by modern quantum technology. This “Quantum Efficiency” initiative embraced scientists from several faculties and was backed by about 10 Internal Senior and External Senior Fellows from esteemed institutes in the UK, Italy and the USA. The scientific program of the Soft Matter Research School has greatly invigorated collaborative research beyond faculty boundaries, and with nearby institutions in Freiburg and around. International graduate programs in collaboration with France were established, for instance an International Research Training Group (IRTG) “Soft Matter Science: Concepts for the Design of Functional Materials” among the universities of Freiburg and Strasbourg.

Very early along, the School directors decided to favour more junior fellowships: up to 7 junior research groups were admitted, each headed by a carefully selected fast-tracked Junior Fellow. The theory groups were housed in the FRIAS main building. Experimental groups, with committed support of the departments, were installed in institute laboratories, where they could benefit from the installed infrastructure. The exceptional success of the junior group leaders helped in obtaining tenured faculty positions elsewhere. The junior groups strongly envigorated the School’s activities. Their research topics were often selected as themes for the School’s Black Forest Focus Workshops, in which top experts were invited to present their recent work. In turn, these workshops strongly networked the School members with key scientific players in Germany and abroad.

Already in 2009, the directors decided to pro-actively recruit top performing women scientists as fellows, in an attempt to achieve a stronger representation in the School. The advice of the Scientific Advisory Board helped to identify potential candidates. Ratios far in excess of the ‘natural’ levels in the field – 40 % of the External Senior Fellows and of the Junior Fellows in 2012/2013 were female – were achieved.

An important goal of the School was to create a strong and durable network between its members and the university's members, and key scientists abroad. A very successful instrument next to the external senior fellowships was introduced in 2009, namely the short term visiting scientists. The stays varied from between a week to a few months, during which they collaborated closely with Freiburg scientists.

15 Hermann Staudinger Lectures, with exclusively Nobel laureates as lecturers, were organized by the Schools of Soft Matter Research and LifeNet. The Nobel laureates hosted by the School of Soft Matter Research included Douglas D. Osheroff, Jean-Marie Lehn (who later became Honorary Fellow of the School), Richard R. Ernst, Brian D. Josephson, Anthony Leggett, Robert B. Laughlin and Richard R. Schrock. These lectures were highly popular with students and other scientists of the university and exposed young researchers to top level international science. Furthermore, and in addition to these Hermann Staudinger Lectures, the School of Soft Matter Research (co-)organized 27 workshops, symposia and conferences in the field of Soft Matter Sciences.

During the five years of the School’s research activity, the scientists at FRIAS permanently altered the Freiburg soft matter landscape. Many high impact publications – some of them sporting beautiful journal covers – as well as grants worth more than € 25 Million underline the research quality of the school. Alone four prestigious European Research Council (ERC) Grants where granted to Soft Matter fellows during their tenure at FRIAS. The numerous co-publications among fellows highlight the international networking of FRIAS scientists with esteemed institutes abroad. Many of the collaborative research projects that were initiated during the first FRIAS phase will continue well beyond the fellowship duration, thereby securing Freiburg’s position in this exciting research area.

Directors

Prof. Dr. Hermann Grabert

Prof. Dr. Jan G. Korvink

Scientific Coordinator

Dr. Britta Küst

Scientific Advisory Board

Dr. Maria Lucia Curri, National Research Council CNR, Institute for Physical and Chemical Processes IPCF, Bari Division, Bari, Italy (2011-2013)

Prof. Dr. Michel H. Devoret, Yale University, New Haven, USA (2008-2013)

Prof. Dr. Eugenia Kumacheva, University of Toronto – St. George Campus, Toronto, Canada (2011-2013)

Prof. Dr. Katharina Landfester, Max-Planck Institute for Polymer Research, Mainz, Germany (2008-2013)

Prof. Dr. Paul Leiderer, Universität Konstanz, Germany (2008-2013)

Prof. Dr. Joachim Luther, National University of Singapore, Singapore (2008-2013)

Prof. Dr. Arokia Nathan, London Centre for Nanotechnology, UK (2008-2013)

Prof. Dr. Christian Schoenenberger, Universität Basel, Switzerland (2008-2013)

Prof. Dr. Hans Spiess,  Max-Planck Institute for Polymer Research, Mainz, Germany (2008-2013)

Prof. Dr. Ulrich W. Suter, ETH Zürich, Switzerland (2008-2013)

Prof. Dr. Mark Warner, University of Cambridge, UK (2008-2013)