»Like watching a ballroom dance«
When we have a problem in our body, the doctor uses radiography to take a picture of what is happening inside. My approach is very similar. I use X-ray spectroscopy to look into the microcosm and observe the interactions of molecules and atoms. Our instruments are like special eyes; they let us see what would otherwise remain invisible. Seeing microcosmic processes helps us discover what is really causing a phenomenon – for example why viruses make us ill.
It’s like watching a ballroom dance, in a way. On the dance floor, people interact, come together, interpret cues, and signal their affinities and dislikes. Atoms and molecules are also engaged in a type of dance, creating bonds and communicating through electrons. Their electronic structure determines how they interact. The X-rays we need for our experiments are produced in the synchrotron facility BESSY II in Adlershof near Berlin. We use X-rays to bombard the molecules we want to investigate. The molecules react and produce their own X-rays, which we record to obtain crucial information about their electronic configurations.
At the moment, I am investigating a family of biomolecules called porphyrins, more specifically hemin, a molecule which contains an iron atom. The iron atom bonds with smaller molecules like water, oxygen, and carbon dioxide. We are trying to understand this function because it will help us gain a better understanding of haemoglobin, a much larger molecule that carries oxygen to our cells and carbon dioxide back to our lungs.
My research is both basic and applied. We study the properties of different materials and learn about their electronic structures. Our results can create opportunities for many other scientific fields. We can design more efficient molecules for drug delivery in medicine, for instance.
I have always been a curious person. As a child, I was constantly taking apart my toys to understand how they worked. Even then I already wanted to become a scientist to gain a better understanding of the world we live in. And I’m still insatiably curious. I want to be inspired by different visions and ideas every day. There are so many stimulating fields, especially psychology and history. But physics fascinates and challenges me the most. Physicists are like modern-day oracles. They search for the rules that govern the universe. Once we have found them it might even be possible to predict the future. That’s magical, I think.
Video: Mirco Lomoth