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Cutting edge research: But make the climate friendly and supportive

Prof. Roseanne Sension’s arrival in Hamburg was a stormy one – her plane was already approaching the airfield when the airport closed down due to heavy wind. However, as Roseanne Sension grew up in Minnesota she is used to dramatic weather conditions. And the reason for her first visit to Hamburg was rather pleasant: During CUI’s New Year’s reception, Prof. Sension was presented the Mildred Dresselhaus Award 2014, which includes personal prize money of 20,000 Euro for a senior scientist. Furthermore, it is combined with a guest professorship that supports research and teaching stays at CUI for up to 6 months. Prof. Sension is planning to return in summer to work with Prof. R. J. Dwayne Miller and his group.


Prof. Roseanne Sension’s work fits perfectly into the CUI research. Credit: CUI

The Mildred Dresselhaus Award aims at establishing new contacts, and to lay the foundation for fruitful collaborations. Furthermore it attracts international female role models in natural sciences to Hamburg. Prof. Roseanne Sension certainly is such a role model. She grew up in Minnesota in a family where higher education was much valued at a time when the natural sciences where not yet a wide spread option for young women. “It was expected for us to go to college and nobody ever said to me that I couldn’t do science,” Roseanne Sension remembers. So she went to Bethel College, a small College in St. Paul, first with the idea of entering medical school, then she got interested in mathematics and physical science. In 1986 she received her Ph.D. in physical chemistry at the University of Berkley in California. “What fascinated me was the power of being able to bring physics and chemistry together to find out how things work, why they work and how they influence biological systems.”  And she loved both theoretical and experimental work: “I was always fascinated by building up complicated machinery.” However, she also found out that she really liked research and that she wanted to be a professor.

Things have been changing dramatically

Roseanne Sension then spent three years each at the University of Oregon, experimenting with molecular spectroscopy, and at the University of Pennsylvania, using ultrafast spectroscopy. In 1992 she moved to the University of Michigan, where her professional aims came true. She became the second tenured female professor in her department in 1999 and was promoted to full professor in 2007. “Things have been changing dramatically since I have been in the business,” she recalls. Today approximately 25 percent of the professors in her department are female due to a general change in education and in expectations during the last 50 years. The University of Michigan has taken deliberate efforts to become open to a diverse range of prospective faculty. “Legally we can’t give preference to any group, so we tried very hard to make the climate friendly and supportive for everybody,” she explains.

Furthermore, regularizing the way young scientists are mentored had an impact. Today everybody gets mentoring through formal group and individual arrangements. “This makes the playing field level for everybody,” Prof. Sension says. Some young people are also coming to her asking for advice how to pursue a career in science and as a professor. Her advice to young scientists: pursue your interests, don’t underrate yourself, and don’t take skepticism too seriously.

Prof. Roseanne Sension’s work fits perfectly into CUI. For many years she has used femtosecond laser pulses to analyze the ring-opening reactions of vitamin D. In Hamburg she is planning to look at electronic excited states and do experiments with systems related to the ring-opening reaction: “I want to see what is possible with the instruments here. This is cutting edge: I am excited to get direct information on molecular structure as a molecule reacts. In the end we will pull all this together – from our experiments in Michigan, at the LCLS in California, and here in Hamburg – and see whether we can confirm or whether we disproove our ideas about the way the reaction happens.”