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Looking back on 25 years of service to IBM

Christophe Rossel, physicist at the IBM Research – Zurich Laboratory, shares some thoughts and insights on a quarter century of service.

Q. Christophe, congratulations on your 25th service anniversary. What brought you to the Zurich Lab?

CR: I was attracted to the reputation of IBM. After doing a post-doc, I had been working on superconductivity as a research associate at UCSD in San Diego, California, and I had contacts with several IBMers at the Almaden and Watson Labs.

Christophe RosselAfter four years I started to look for career opportunities in Europe to be closer to my family. Having had such a good experience in the US, working for IBM seemed a perfect match.

Research at the Zurich Lab was so famous that I was happy to join the Physics Department — now called Science & Technology — in 1987. I first worked on resonant tunneling in III-V heterostructures with Pierre Guéret, and in parallel went on with my activities in superconductivity. Alex Müller and Georg Bednorz had just won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery of high-Tc superconductivity, which was really an exciting time, and so the IBM Zurich – Research Lab was the place for a young physicist to be.

Q. You originally come from Neuchâtel in the francophone region of Switzerland. Was it a big adjustment to cross the infamous “Rösti Ditch“?

CR: While working on my PhD in Geneva I never would have considered moving to the German-speaking part of Switzerland, although I had been exposed to the culture by my mother, who is originally from the Grisons.

But as seen from the US perspective, the distance from Geneva to Zurich is negligible and so I didn’t think twice before moving to Rüschlikon.

By the way, my wife is also a German-Swiss and so I have long known that there is life beyond the Rösti Ditch (laughs).

Q. Could you describe a couple of ways in which the Zurich Lab has changed since 1987?

CR: Well, it’s grown, for one thing.

Another thing that has changed dramatically in the past 25 years is the pace of work as a result of the incredible advances in computing and communication technologies. Just think of the number of emails and conversations we exchange every hour with our laptops and smartphones. This was inconceivable 25 years ago!

The main change, though, is that IBM has become more of a team-oriented company with stronger interdisciplinary interactions within the Zurich Lab as well as throughout the IBM Research division. This has had a very positive effect because IBM Research is extremely rich in terms of expertise.

Back then, you typically had one research staff member and one technician pursuing their own research projects. Today, research is also much more applied, business-oriented and influenced by the search for external funding and collaborations.

Q. What have been some of the highlights of your career so far?

CR: Clearly the period of the high-Tc superconductivity boom, when so much attention was focused on Zurich, was a highlight.

Another one was certainly the Outstanding Achievement award I received for my work on torque magnetometry used to measure the properties of superconducting microcrystals.

I’ve worked on many different aspects of experimental condensed-matter physics and materials science throughout my career, and it’s this opportunity to pursue different challenges as they arise that makes our work here so compelling, even after 25 years.

Always reinventing yourself is a real challenge and an opportunity not only for the company but also for us employees.

I have also enjoyed organizing and participating in conferences and workshops as well as serving on various editorial boards of scientific journals.

Q. What do you enjoy most about the working environment at the Zurich Lab?

CR: What I especially appreciate is the intensive contact with the many post-docs and students who pass through our Lab. They bring fresh ideas and new thinking, and we are in a fortunate position to interact with them without having teaching obligations like at universities.

I’d also like to mention how much I appreciate the support I’ve always enjoyed for my work within the greater Physics community. For example, I served as the executive secretary of the European Physical Society for 5 years, which opened lots of networking possibilities. Four years ago, I became president of the Swiss Physical Society.

Those are further highlights of my career, and I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to pursue these interests and cultivate these relationships. They’re a good balance to my research work at IBM.

It’s so important to interact within the scientific community, not just within one’s own company.

Q. Here’s a photo of someone I’m sure you’ll recognize. If you could give this young man some advice, what would you tell him?

CR: (Laughs) Wow, I look so young! Well, let’s see. I would encourage him to keep his enthusiasm and passion for science. Life is too short to waste on something you’re not passionate about. Have fun, face the challenges, and share your enthusiasm!

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