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30 under 30: Investigating Exotic Nuclei, with Inspiration from MacGyver

Meet Ulrika Forsberg, 26, one of the up-and-coming physicists attending this year's Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting
Swedish physicist Ulrika Forsberg



Courtesy Ulrika Forsberg

The annual Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting brings a wealth of scientific minds to the shores of Germany’s Lake Constance. Every summer at Lindau, dozens of Nobel Prize winners exchange ideas with hundreds of young researchers from around the world. Whereas the Nobelists are the marquee names, the younger contingent is an accomplished group in its own right. In advance of this year’s meeting, which focuses on physics, we are profiling several promising attendees under the age of 30. The profile below is the 17th in a series of 30.

Name: Ulrika Forsberg
Age: 26
Born: Helsingborg, Sweden
Nationality: Swedish

Current position: Ph.D. student, Lund University
Education: Bachelor's degree, master's degree from Lund University

What is your field of research?
My main research topic is superheavy elements, i.e., atoms which have more than about a hundred protons, and which we think only exist on Earth when we create them in our laboratories. I want to figure out more about them—how heavy can they get, and what are their properties?

What drew you to physics, and to that research area in particular?
I think my interest in science awoke when I was in grade 7 or 8 in school. I remember how I spent a lot of time asking my teacher in physics and chemistry about things related to the studies, and I was never really happy with the answers he gave and I knew that there was something more behind it. Naturally, it is not possible to explain all nature’s known properties to a student in grade 8, and I now know that his answers were in fact very good, but at that time I could not really accept that the full truth about nature is not known, and that he could not explain it all to me. Partly, I was annoyed with scientists not yet knowing everything, and partly I was amazed about how much there is to know. It was not until much later, though, that I realized that I can be part of increasing the knowledge. But when I found that out, of course I knew that I want to do science!

Where do you see yourself in 10 years? Do you have specific research goals, or a particular problem or puzzle that you really want to solve?
I am quite certain that I want to work with physics in 10 years from now, but I do not know exactly in what field. There is so much to know and so much to figure out about the world we live in. Of course, my heart is beating more for nuclear physics than any other field, and one of the main questions for me is “How many chemical elements are there?” This question also dates back to grade 8 or so, when I was totally shocked by the fact that the best answer to the question at the time was “about 110.” I could hardly believe that this was not known! To be part of answering this question, or at least coming closer to the very limit of nuclear stability by producing and studying artificially produced nuclei, is truly amazing!

Who are your scientific heroes?
While still in school, I did not really have any “real” role models in science. Since I was always very skeptical to everything in my school books, and felt that this cannot be the full truth, I was also mostly skeptical to scientists. Of course I had heard about how clever Einstein was, and I thought that Marie Curie was very cool since she worked in a field dominated by men, and I guess I looked up to them, but I never really thought that I could actually be even a little like them, and I had no mental picture of how they worked and what they really did. The same thing actually applied to Nobel laureates in general. I knew they were all fascinating and very intelligent and clever people, but I knew nothing more. It was not until later, when I started to understand how science is done, that I started to fully appreciate the work of the world’s most prominent researchers. However, a more “understandable” role model that I grew up with was MacGyver from the 1980s TV series of the same name, who seemed to solve just any problem by knowing a lot about everything. I knew that by studying a lot I could be a little like him, and that inspired me to learn more about the world we live in.

What is your dream study or experiment? If you had unlimited resources, what kind of research would you conduct?
With unlimited resources I could do the “contemporary” experiments on superheavy elements with very much better statistics—both production of new elements and closer investigations of the behavior of the ones we have seen so far but not examined carefully. And I could also, with the new target and beam materials that would be possible with unlimited resources, go to more neutron-rich isotopes of superheavy elements, which could possibly make up an “island of stability” of long-lived nuclei. But to be perfectly honest, I would probably spend those unlimited resources in developing sustainable ways of producing electricity instead and sincerely hope that this would solve many of our problems.

What activities outside of physics do you most enjoy?
I enjoy sailing with my family in the summer, and to do various kinds of boat-related handicraft when our boat calls for renovation. I also like baking cakes, and especially to decorate them according to some (sometimes science-related!) theme.

What do you hope to gain from this year’s Lindau meeting?
Having the opportunity to participate in the Lindau Meetings is one of my big chances in life to meet with some of the best scientists in the world, as well as other young researchers who have the ambition of being the best scientists of tomorrow. I can hardly imagine an environment which is more inspiring! I also think that the spirit of the conference is perfect, and that the organizers really emphasize that science is built from something more than  methods and results, namely people with a passion for science. I hope that my own participation will inspire me and widen my views, not only in a short-scale perspective as in finding new solutions to difficulties I am facing right now in my research, but also in a long-term perspective in that I can be inspired by how brilliant minds reason and think about different aspects of research.

Are there any Nobelists whom you are particularly excited to meet or learn from at Lindau?
I am equally excited to meet each one to them! They represent such a large amount of knowledge and wisdom, and from a scientific perspective I am sure that I can learn a lot from each one of them. None of the participants’ research is focused mainly upon nuclear physics, which is my main field of interest, but I think talking to any of them could be equally inspiring and could help me widen my views and provide new ways of looking upon my own research field. Each of the Laureates has contributed so greatly to science, and it is amazing to actually meet the people behind the big breakthroughs in science which I have heard about during my studies, or encountered as a user of various technologies. Therefore, it is impossible for me to say who is most important for me to meet. However, from a personal point of view, it feels extra fun to meet Walter Kohn, since I once decorated a cake with the so-called Kohn-Sham equation!

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16. Stefan Pabst
30 Under 30:
Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting
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18. Robert Parrish

 

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