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Sandra Brünken: ‘I can see in the laboratory what is happening in space’

Interview with dr. Sandra Brünken (HFML-FELIX)

Already having worked as guest user at the FELIX Laboratory, SSandra Brünkenandra Brünken now is an Assistant Professor in the FELIX Infrared and Terahertz Spectroscopy group at HFML-FELIX, scientifically embedded within he Institute for Molecules and Materials (IMM) of Radboud University. Brünken, born and raised in Germany, has started her own research group that focusses on astrophysics and astrochemistry. She is especially interested in cold 22-pole ion trap experiments for astrochemical studies. “I am using the experiments in the lab to understand processes in interstellar molecular clouds and the formation of stars”, Brünken says.

We interview Sandra Brünken about her research background, her research focus within IMM and herself.

What has been your career path so far?

“I have studied physics at many different places: at the University of Bonn in Germany, at the University of St. Andrews (Scotland) and at the University of Berlin. My real fascination for laboratory astrophysics started during my PhD in the group of prof. Gisbert Winnewisser at the University of Cologne in Germany. After that, I have done a postdoc research project where I combined laboratory work with astronomical observations at Harvard University. Then I switched fields and worked on biomolecules at EPFL in Switzerland. I learned new techniques like ion trapping for biomolecular identification, which are also well suited to apply for astrochemical questions. In 2009, I returned to Cologne and worked in the laboratory astrophysics group of prof. Stephan Schlemmer, who is an expert on ion trapping and cold spectroscopy. Among other things I build novel instruments, one of them is in operation within the FELIX Laboratory.”

How did you end up at Radboud University?

“In Germany I had already started my own research line. One of the instruments developed in Cologne moved to the user facility of the FELIX Laboratory. I have often been in Nijmegen for measurement campaigns. I really enjoyed the atmosphere at FELIX and Radboud in general, and liked the city of Nijmegen a lot. In 2017, I applied for the Christine Mohrmann fellowship at Radboud University and got the job. We moved close to Nijmegen and are now living right across the border.”

What is your research focus?

“Laboratory astrophysics is a quite interdisciplinary field involving molecular physics, chemistry and spectroscopy. We aim to obtain a fundamental understanding of the processes that happen in space by simulating them in the lab. We mainly focus on the kinetics of very cold chemical reactions. With the ion trap instrument, we are able to simulate the interstellar conditions. We connect the machine with the powerful (far) infrared free-electron laser (FELIX) and use it as a tool to unravel the structure of the ions formed or started with. Furthermore, we continue fundamental spectroscopic research, for example for structural analysis of new species that are important in the chemistry of space. We study these processes in detail with advanced techniques. At the same time, we are collaborating with astronomers of the Max Plank Institute to do observations and try with radio telescopes to see if the processes in the lab are ctually also happening in space.”

Obtaining spectroscopic fingerprint data in the laboratory for the identification of new species in space Sandra in the FELIX Laboratory

Why are you fascinated by astrophysics and astrochemistry?

“Who is not amazed when looking at the stars at night? I assume everybody wants to know what is out there. It relates to the bigger questions of how life on our planet was formed. Maybe the first steps happened in space? In the lab we try to solve these pieces of the puzzle and understand the phenomena of how it all started in detail. You can’t travel to space that easily, so you need tools to observe it. By detecting its light with telescopes in combination with chemical modelling and reference data from the lab, you can really understand what is happening in a molecular cloud lightyears away. For example, we were able to determine the age of an interstellar cloud this way, isn’t that exciting?”

How do you experience IMM?

“I feel very welcome at IMM. There are short communication lines and I experience a lot of support through courses, coaching and mentoring. I think it is very important that we at FELIX are scientifically linked to IMM, because of the interdisciplinary research opportunities with IMM groups. We can learn from mutual expertise and experiences. Currently we are starting up a collaboration that combines theory and experimental research. Actually, I am quite impressed by the high quality of the students; they are very curious and well educated. I am looking forward to mentoring more of them and see them growing to independent, self-confident individuals.”

Anything else you would like to add?

“I really like the international environment of Radboud University as they attract scientists and students from different countries. I find it appealing that I can meet and share knowledge with researchers from all over the world. And I like the fact that Radboud University is an inclusive university where the talents of students and employees are recognized and where different ideas are heard and everybody is accepted.”

Text: Miriam Heijmerink