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A world leading career in physics – against all obstacles

The path from a small town in the middle of Brazil to the renowned University of Utrecht is a rather long one. Cristiane Morais Smith, Mildred Dresselhaus Awardee 2016, has mastered this path with a clear vision, strategic planning, and a deep interest in learning. Today Prof. Morais Smith is a world leading theoretical condensed- matter physicist with a broad spectrum of research activities including topics such as topological quantum matter, graphene physics, quantum Hall physics, high temperature superconductivity, quantum gas physics, and nano physics.

Cristiane Morais Smith comes from a family of strong women. Credit: I. Adler

Cristiane Morais Smith comes from a family of strong women. One grandmother consciously decided to move from a farm to a village and start making bread to enable her children to go to school; the other grandmother became a widow at the age of 29 and inherited her husband’s work as an accountant at City Hall. She was the first woman to work as a public employee in that small village, thus enabling her children to go to university – one of them being the mother of Cristiane Morais Smith. “My mother is an extreme key figure in my career,” she says, recalling two significant events in early childhood:  She and her brothers and sisters didn’t know how to swim yet, but her mother allowed them to jump from the very high diving platform – after asking a young man to pick them up in the middle of the swimming pool and bring them to the border. “This was a big lesson of courage,” Cristiane Morais Smith says. The second event was a national drawing competition for celebrating forests. Although she wasn’t good at drawing, her mother asked her whether she would like to win. Then she told her to find a tree that she liked and to copy it until it would be perfect. The girl was “only” second in the competition, but she thought: “Never mind, I will win the next one.” At an early age she had learned her lessons: to find out what she liked, try it, and if necessary try again.

Fascinated by her teachers

At school Cristiane Morais Smith was fascinated by her teachers and by what they were giving her. At the age of 13, a teacher asked the class to calculate how the acceleration of a body in free fall depends on the mass. This was actually the Galileo experiment, and although it was too complicated for the children, Cristiane succeeded in solving it. Fascinated by the experiment, she wondered what kind of profession she would have to go for to “play” such games. The answer was: physicist. That was it: her profession was decided although nobody would believe her saying that she would be a physicist. At the same time, she learned piano at the conservatorium and did a lot of sports.

“I didn’t care for money or security”

Before starting her last year at an underprivileged public high school in her village – the only available there -, she persuaded her parents to let her go to a much better private school in a neighbor town to gain access to a good university. For a whole year she studied 16 hours a day: “I had no idea about what was necessary to be admitted in such a good university, so I had no limits. I could not risk failing.” After entering the best university in the country, she finally found herself surrounded by people who were like her – with the same curiosity and passion for learning. Yet, not knowing that she had been one of the first in the entrance exams, she still made more efforts than needed. In addition, while studying physics she worked 6 hours a day at the Bank of Brazil and took English and French lessons in the evening. The job at the bank was extremely well payed, but she quit it as soon as she finished her bachelor degree, and went to live from a fellowship while doing her master’s in theoretical physics. Cristiane Morais Smith: “I didn’t care for money or security.” As a way to compensate her lack of education in general subjects, she also did a full degree in French literature while doing the master in physics, but as for the follow up, she says: “I would never quit physics.”

At the age of 23, Cristiane Morais Smith published her first paper as a Rapid Communication in Physical Review A. The work was part of her master’s thesis, which was supervised by a young professor who later became one of the most important physicists in Brazil. At the age of 25, she got a permanent assistant professor position at the University of Sao Paulo state, and started teaching 12 hours per week. At that point, her research activities got a bit stuck because she was concentrating her energy on the students.

“Bad things that come in your life can also be important impulses.”

Two years later, she was invited to a conference at the ICTP in Trieste, and to her surprise a German professor presented the results that she had obtained during her master’s thesis. “This is when I realized that I had done something important. And I could do more.” She decided to go for a PhD abroad and was then accepted at ETH Zürich. After holding a C1 postdoc position in Hamburg, Germany, she was awarded the Professor Boursier Fellowship from the Swiss National Science Foundation and became an associate professor in Fribourg, Switzerland. Finally, in 2004 she was offered a Chair in Condensed-Matter Theory and became a full professor at the Institute for Theoretical Physics of Utrecht University, The Netherlands. In 2008, she was awarded the prestigious VICI fellowship from the Dutch Research Organization (NWO), which has strongly boosted her research. She had to overcome quite a few obstacles to get where she is today, but she says: “Bad things that come in your life can also be important impulses. One should just keep focus and never give up.”

Cristiane Morais Smith has a long standing connection to the Hamburg research landscape, including projects with Prof. Daniela Pfannkuche, Prof. Klaus Sengstock, and Prof. Andreas Hemmerich (all of Universität Hamburg). Within the duration of her Mildred Dresselhaus guest professorship, further collaborations with Prof. Andrea Cavalleri (Max Planck Institute for the Structure and Dynamics of Matter), Prof. Mathey Ludwig, Prof. Michael Thorwart and Prof. Peter Schmelcher (both of Universität Hamburg) could be possible.

Besides her mother tongue Portuguese, Cristiane Morais Smith speaks English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, and Dutch. Text: Adler