Monika Ritsch-Marte

Monika Ritsch-Marte

Medical University of Innsbruck, Austria

For innovative contributions to using spatial light modulators for microscopy and optical trapping, establishing techniques which include spiral phase contrast and wide-field CARS imaging and trapping of motile micro-organisms.
Physics was an unusual career for women in Austria in the 1980s, but this did not deter Monika Ritsch-Marte from pursuing it. She was always interested in science; nothing else ever interested her as much.  In school, she discovered that she was good at both math and science, and she wanted to answer questions about the natural world. Monika visited a physics lab during a university open house and never looked back.

She was a theoretical physicist for 18 years before she was hired at the Medical University of Innsbruck, Austria where she has been a full professor in biophotonics for 20 years. Monika notes that this was a great opportunity to broaden her views. She explains that biophotonics is on the border of biology and physics, which works out well for her, as she was always interested in biology and now she has the opportunity to study biology as well as optics.   

“More and more interdisciplinary research is emerging,” Monika says. The classic borders of scientific fields are becoming hazy. New questions cross boundaries, which creates challenges in optics while also driving the research. One of her favorite personal discoveries showcases this idea. She was having a discussion with her husband, also a theoretical physicist, regarding why radiation pressure, but not optical gradient forces (which are used in optical tweezer) are included in astrophysical models. They published a paper on the theoretical aspects of this a few years ago and it was recently measured experimentally at the University of California, Berkeley, USA. They were looking at optical forces in biological cells and ended up in astrophysics. She says that this is just one example of the interdisciplinary nature of optics and encourages researchers to be open to new fields and new applications.

Monika is “quite thrilled” with the state of optics and photonics because there are always new questions and new discoveries which, in turn, trigger additional questions and discoveries. She adds that the field is constantly evolving which is amazing since some optical instruments have been around for over 300 years.   One would think that everything that can be known is already known, but this is clearly not the case, since advances in technology may lead to new reachable scenarios and thus new questions to be asked. This makes research exciting and interesting.

“It’s important to have a passion for understanding how the world works,” she says. She advises young scientists to be tenacious and to “hang in” to get the answers. On the other hand, Monika notes that it is crucial to look at your work and to understand when it is time to quit.  It is necessary to be analytical and understand when research is worth pursuing and when you may have hit a dead end and another direction is necessary.  She acknowledges that this self-reflection is difficult, but it helps you to be a better scientist. “Researchers should focus on the quality and importance of their research and not on the number of papers published or the impact of the journal,” she says. “It is important to strive to advance the science: what will still be relevant in 50 years?”

Profile written by Jeanette Gass