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Published: 2023-11-06

“I was often the only female physicist among the men”

PROFILE As a young woman in Poland, Aleksandra Foltynowicz broke the norms when she followed her passion for technology and decided to become a physicist. Today, she is a respected scientist working at the forefront of laser spectroscopy development, helping us explore the secrets of molecules.

Image: Mattias Pettersson

Being a researcher is no ordinary job, it's a way of living

Aleksandra Foltynowicz is a professor of physics at Umeå University and a mother of three. She is now back at work full-time after her youngest child started preschool. However, a hundred percent parental leave was never an option for a researcher at her level.

“In this job, some things will not wait. I submitted an application for research funding one week after my son was born. If there is a deadline, it doesn't matter that you just came home from the hospital. To keep up the pace, you also need a partner who is really supportive, otherwise it is not possible,” she says.

Her research area is experimental physics. Together with her group at the Department of Physics, she develops new optical measurement methods to study molecules in the gas phase. Data from their experiments help create and refine models that can be used to interpret information from space telescopes and gain new knowledge about planets far beyond our own solar system. The techniques they use are very complex and demanding.

“It is very exciting. I have always been interested in technology. I can easily spot patterns and I like to know how things work,” she says.

Aleksandra Foltynowicz grew up in Poland in the 1980s, a time when the society's view of gender roles was still very narrow.

“I have a strong memory from preschool of toys being divided between boys and girls. As a girl, I wasn't allowed to play with what I thought were the fun things, like cars and building blocks. At home I could do that, but not in preschool,” says Aleksandra Foltynowicz, whose parents were both academics and researchers in chemistry.

In primary school, she had a dedicated mathematics teacher who devoted extra time to her. In high school, she chose an English language program and was fortunate to have a knowledgeable and open-minded physics teacher who taught her to think like a scientist.

“My parents and teachers ... none of them told me that girls couldn’t do math and physics. I heard that from others later, but by then it was too late. In that sense I was lucky that no one tried to dampen that interest in me. On the contrary, my mother and father encouraged me. They helped me with my homework and drove me to extra activities.”

Came to Umeå as an exchange student

After two years of undergraduate studies in physics, she came to Umeå in 2002 as an exchange student. Umeå was one of the few universities she could apply to that offered courses in English. She has remained here ever since, except for the two years when she spent as postdoc in the US.

Aleksandra Foltynowicz's research is not the easiest to explain – but no less important. It is world-class fundamental research with possible applications in a wide range of fields.

Each molecule has its own 'fingerprint' that is determined by the energy levels in the molecule. Transitions between these energy levels cause the molecules to absorb a certain combination of light in different colors when you shine light on them.

“What is very specific to us is the method we work with, which is based on a type of laser called an optical frequency comb. A traditional laser emits light in one color, like a red or green laser pointer. Other light sources, such as ordinary lamps, emit white light, which is made up of very many colors with no gaps between them. An optical frequency comb, on the other hand, looks like a comb. It is like having a hundred thousand ordinary lasers in one beam.

Nobel Prize-winning technology

The scientists who developed the optical frequency comb technology in the early 2000s were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2005. The technology has applications in many fields. Aleksandra Foltynowicz is working on spectroscopy.

“Absorption spectroscopy involves sending light through a sample, for example air. By seeing how much light and which colors are absorbed, you can figure out which molecules are in the sample,” she says.

The method is useful for examining emissions from industries, combustion processes and exhaled air. Right now, Aleksandra Foltynowicz focuses mostly on applications in astrophysics.

“Absorption spectroscopy can provide information about what is in the atmosphere of exoplanets, the planets outside our solar system. In space, there are no lasers but there are stars and planets. When the light from a star passes through the atmosphere of a planet some light is absorbed. If this light is then captured by a telescope it carries an absorption spectrum of the exoplanet's atmosphere.

Aleksandra Foltynowicz's research team does not buy conventional spectrometers, but uses the optical frequency comb in their own unique way to conduct experiments and obtain very precise molecular data. These data are needed for other researchers to create accurate models and analyze information from, for example, the James Webb and Hubble telescopes.

Believes in a breakthrough

“We could never have guessed ten years ago where we would be today with this technology. I don't know what the next big thing is, but I believe another breakthrough will come and I hope to become more and more a part of the larger research community.”

Another thing Aleksandra Foltynowicz hopes for is more female colleagues.

“I have often been alone among the guys. There are very few women physicists ahead of me, older than me, and still quite few around me. But I think this will change, there are many younger female researchers who I hope will continue their careers. Being a researcher is no ordinary job, it's a way of living and you have to be quite tough,” she says.