Anne L'Huillier and Sara Snogerup Linse chair their respective Nobel Committees at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences; Anne for Physics and Sara for Chemistry. Both have worked extensively at LU/LTH and are among the few women who are, or have been, committee chairs.
The position as chair rotates and the current presence of three women as committee chairs – Juleen Zierath from Karolinska Institutet is chair of the Nobel Committee for Medicine – is a coincidence. But it is a good coincidence according to the LTH professors, who have set up a small group texting network to exchange wise words with each other.
Anne L'Huillier is Professor of Atomic Physics at Lund University and for the past year has been chair of the Nobel Committee for Physics. However, she is no beginner in terms of Nobel activities. She has been a member of the committee for nine years – the longest period that one can be a member.
“Being the chair is very time-consuming and demands a lot of responsibility, but at the same time it is very enjoyable. I broaden my knowledge, as I am compelled to learn about everything related to physics”, says Anne L'Huillier.
She also explains that she has gained new insights into how the major discoveries and inventions originated. Last year she worked extensively in the area of energy-efficient blue light-emitting diodes.
“As far back as the late 1950s it was known what was theoretically required to create blue light-emitting diodes, but then it took about 30 years before it was successful. Research was done in waves, as many groups worked for many years, but could not solve certain technical problems and then gave up. Other groups tried again using new ideas, but then gave up and so on. Finally, the Japanese researchers succeeded and were awarded the prize”, she says.
The Nobel Committee receives 300–400 nominations every year. All of these are read through, many areas are investigated, and what many people might not realise is that the Nobel Committee also writes a secret report, which is archived for 50 years. The report contains a summary of the year’s work. Preparing popular science texts to explain the Nobel Prize to the public is also an important part of the work. Short texts and illustrations that summarise extensive research must be completely correct before being released to the media. A poster is also produced every year.
How do you keep everything secret?
“We never use email. We meet often and when we write on computers, they are special computers that cannot be connected to a network. Another factor is that there is a high level of honesty and integrity in the research community and Swedish society in general, so over the years we have managed very well regarding secrecy”, she says.
In what way do you benefit from your Nobel job in your everyday role as a professor at LTH?
“It is difficult to put your finger on the exact benefit, but clearly it broadens my expertise. In that way it benefits my own research, although the job also takes a lot of time from my research. Being on the Nobel Committee is very interesting, but I look forward to having more time for my own research when the assignment is over”, she concludes.
About Anne L'Huillier
Anne L'Huillier, born in 1958 in France, is Professor of Atomic Physics at Lund University. Her research concerns producing and utilising ultrashort pulses of light, known as attosecond pulses. Attosecond physics concerns “freezing” processes as fast as the movement of electrons or how an atom changes into an ion, and is expected to provide new findings for basic research in physics. Last year she was named Distinguished Professor by the Swedish Research Council. She has also received ERC grants on three occasions – highly prestigious grants from the European Research Council – as well as research funding from the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation within the Wallenberg Scholars project.
Sara Snogerup Linse
Sara Snogerup Linse is Professor of Physical Chemistry and Molecular Protein Science at Lund University. For the past year she has been chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.
When asked if she can be “starstruck” as committee chair when she meets other leading researchers, Sara Snogerup Linse answers with a firm “no”:
“I always forget such things. I think that I have got this task and that I will do it as well as possible.”
The task of the committee chair is to lead the assessment process concerning nominations for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry – i.e. the proposals that have come in from different universities and institutions, researchers from around the world, and from previous Nobel Prize winners and members of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
At the start of the year, the committee work is allocated and the assessment process begins. Due to the secrecy involved, it means a lot of evening work and working at home.
The most interesting aspect of the work according to Sara Snogerup Linse is that the committee members “get an insight into the best of the best ” and they get to read, see and learn so much that is new. She sees great beauty in research:
“I love experiments, of course, and in our work we get to look at a great many beautiful calculations and experiments that researchers have designed to answer various issues.”
What have you learned so far from your work as chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry?
“There are a lot of things. One thing I have learned is to delegate more, to spread the work. As I have overall responsibility, we must share the basic work.”
According to Sara Snogerup Linse there are no ”battles” within the committee in which members compete with each other to advance their own favourites to become Nobel Prize winners.
“I have never experienced that there has been a battle. On the contrary, I feel that we work together so that there will be a good prize in the end. We help each other and have a dialogue, not only within the committee for chemistry, but also with the other committees.”
The reason why Sara Snogerup Linse chose to focus on physical chemistry and molecular protein science – and then became a professor and Nobel Committee chair – can be found back in her school days.
“The reason I became curious about proteins was my chemistry teacher in secondary school, Bärbel Hahn-Hägerdahl, who at that time was a doctoral student at LTH and also taught our class. She really brought the subject alive and made it very enjoyable. I particularly remember one session when Bärbel told us that proteins consist of chains with 20 amino acids that create a structure, but nobody could predict how with certainty. That was when I decided to find out the answer. It couldn’t be that difficult, I thought. Now, research has made advances, but we have still not found the answer.”
Sara Snogerup Linse wants to continue sharing the joy of discovery, both during courses and in the lab. For when the joy in a subject is awakened, a lot of other things follow naturally, she observes. And perhaps, says the chemistry professor, it is this joy that drives most Nobel Prize winners.
“It is probably the case that people who become successful think what they do is fun and are curious. They want to find the truth and get to the bottom of problems.”
About Sara Snogerup Linse
Sara Snogerup Linse, born in 1962, is involved in physical chemistry research and has developed knowledge about proteins’ biophysical chemistry and certain basic processes for proteins that are active in diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. As well as her passion for experiments and working in the lab, Sara Snogerup Linse has an interest in children’s books – together with her partner, Kyrre Thalberg, she has published five. She is also involved in running Humlegården, which offers accommodation and daily activities for people with autism and mental disabilities.