BESSY Facility Speaker: “I am absolutely thrilled at how international we have become”

Dr. Antje Vollmer heads the User Coordination department at the X-ray source BESSY II and has been the spokesperson for the BESSY II facility since 2021.

Dr. Antje Vollmer heads the User Coordination department at the X-ray source BESSY II and has been the spokesperson for the BESSY II facility since 2021. © HZB/D. Ausserhofer

Researchers from many countries around the world submit proposals for measurement time at BESSY II.

Researchers from many countries around the world submit proposals for measurement time at BESSY II. © HZB/J. Politt

For 75 years, synchrotron radiation sources have been indispensable for gaining knowledge. Antje Vollmer talks about international networking, a new record at the X-ray source BESSY II – and how she can tell from the research applications alone which social problems are particularly pressing at the moment.

Dr. Vollmer, you worked at BESSY for the first time in 1994...

Antje Vollmer: Yes, that was while doing my PhD thesis. I was given measurement time there already in the first week. And a lot has changed since then.

Tell me about it!

The use of synchrotron radiation sources has become much broader. At BESSY I, 90 percent of the projects were for physics. Now, at BESSY II, 45 percent of the projects are for physics, while the rest are mainly for chemistry, biology, biochemistry, medicine and archaeology.

Does this also mean that the scientific questions that can be explored using synchrotron radiation have changed?

Quite distinctly. Today, there is a more pronounced motivation to derive practical, societal benefits from scientific findings. This is especially clear when it comes to major problems like the coronavirus pandemic: in its first year, COVID-19 papers based on work done at a synchrotron were being published at an average rate of one every five days – including, among other places, here at BESSY II.

When the pandemic started, did you systematically free up measurement time at BESSY II for COVID research?

We immediately fast tracked it at all experimental stations. Studies included not only protein structures, which is a long-standing branch of research here, but also aerosol distribution in the air, for example. During that phase, by the way, we set a new record: it took only three days from application to measurement – the typical lead time is half a year.

Do the applications you receive when there isn’t a pandemic also reflect socially burning issues?

We actually do see which issues are particularly relevant and even exciting at the moment. For example, graphene becomes a hot topic and all of a sudden the number of applications skyrockets, until at some point it drops again. A cycle like that lasts about ten years. At the moment, energy research is high on the agenda, and I’m sure it will keep us busy for much, much longer than the usual ten years. But of course, within such a large topic area, you also get shifts in focus. In the beginning, it was mainly on solar cells; currently, focus is on all aspects of energy storage, like hydrogen, battery research, electromobility or synthetic fuels – these are all topics that we would not have found here 20 years ago.

What about the user groups? Are they also becoming more diverse?

Oh yes! I recently looked at the 30-year-old user data, and in one year, for example, we had 114 German user groups, two Austrian groups and one Australian group. Today, international users make up almost half. I really am thrilled at see how international we have become here.

It sounds like there’s more to it, though.

Unfortunately, the fact is that most of our user community comes from the northern hemisphere. Occasionally, we have someone from North or South Africa, but we have still never had any user groups from Central Africa.

Why would that be?

I can imagine it has to do with the societal structures. In Africa, there are 169 scientists per million inhabitants. In Europe, there are twenty times that. When I think of it, it reminds me of the European Union’s TNA programme, which used to exist...

...TNA stands for trans-national access...

...and the EU would bear the costs if scientists crossed a national border for an experiment. It was supposed to promote maximum mobility in Europe. Back then, I travelled all over Europe and promoted BESSY II to researchers – in Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Portugal and many other countries. And everywhere I met with reservation. In Eastern Europe, the widespread attitude was that staying in Germany was unaffordable anyway – despite all costs including travel being covered.

And in Southern Europe, the reservation was more along the lines that “we in the North” were a tight-knit club and wouldn’t take applications from the South seriously anyway.

The term “science diplomacy” has come into use for what you are talking about now.

And a certain particle accelerator is a prime example of this: CERN, which was built after the war, was so large that it was too big for any one of the participating countries alone, and they could only manage it all together. A more recent example is the SESAME synchrotron in Jordan. It, too, is designed to bring together researchers from across the region, including Israel. That really is groundbreaking, even if the reality of it isn’t always so easy.

SESAME wants to become a synchrotron for African researchers as well...

And that brings me back to my observation that there are only few African scientists working here in Berlin. By the way, I had an “aha” moment at a conference of the Humboldt Foundation. We had colleagues from Kenya, Bangladesh and Myanmar there, working, for example, on water splitting for sustainable energy. For many of them, it was their first time at an international conference because they would normally not have been able to afford it. But because it was a virtual format due to COVID-19, they could all be there together. That’s when it really hit me: often, we were simply excluding the whole of Africa from the brain circulation process – as we call it here at Helmholtz – just because many people over there couldn’t travel for financial reasons. To get everyone involved, we should definitely make such meetings hybrid in the future, so that people can at least join in online. That, already, would be a significant step.

We conducted this interview in January 2022. What would you add today in the face of the war on Ukraine?

The Russian State’s war of aggression against Ukraine shocks us all and shows how developments that we in Europe thought no longer possible are overrunning us. This war demands a clear stance against aggression and has led to clear, visible measures such as the immediate cessation of all cooperation with Russian institutions.

It is the responsibility of the scientific community to take a clear stand against the behaviour of the Russian State – and that is what we at HZB have done. I would like to emphasize that this is about the Russian and Belarusian governments, not about the nationality of the colleagues. Our solidarity is with the Ukrainians, but also with the critical Russian scientists who are courageously taking a stand against the war.  One thing that I firmly believe in was said well by the President of the German Physical Society: “We will not be shaken in our belief in the unifying effect of science!”

Interviewed by Kilian Kirchgessner. This interview was first pubished in "lichtblick", issue 49, April 2022.

Short biography:

Dr. Antje Vollmer heads the User Coordination department at the X-ray source BESSY II and has been the spokesperson for the BESSY II facility since 2021. As early as 2003, Vollmer, who holds a doctorate in chemistry, set up a measuring station at BESSY II and headed it for eight years before switching to user coordination ten years ago. She attaches great importance to the societal benefits of research at X-ray sources.

Interview: Kilian Kirchgessner

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