“I demand my students' full attention”

© Alain Herzog/ 2018 EPFL

© Alain Herzog/ 2018 EPFL

Specialist in quantum mechanics and materials, Professor Nicola Marzari has been named best teacher in the Materials Science and Engineering section.

Nicola Marzari is so crazy about quantum mechanics that he has it for breakfast. On a shelf in his office sit two packages of coffee called “Quantum ESPRESSO,” which he found by chance at a store in Chicago. Marzari bought it because that’s also the name of a software program for quantum materials simulations that he worked on. This open-source program was developed as part of a global initiative, and Marzari is proud of his contribution. He is a staunch advocate of knowledge sharing and plays an active role in a variety of initiatives to make materials science-related tools and research available online. “We are funded by public money, so it’s important that we make our knowledge available to the general public,” he says.

This year, Professor Marzari has been named best teacher in the Materials Science and Engineering section. But he hopes to teach his students about much more than the fundamentals of quantum mechanics. “Today we don’t retain as much information as we used to. When we want to know something, we just look it up on Google. But if we want to develop our critical thinking skills, we have to dig deeper and question the world around us,” he says. In fact, the reason Marzari chose a career in physics is because of its extremely broad scope. His passion for this field led him to some of the world’s most prestigious universities. After completing a PhD at Cambridge, he worked as a researcher at Princeton and taught at MIT and Oxford. He is also a firm believer in promoting equal opportunity and spent a year at Addis Ababa University. A considerable amount of his time is spent supporting measures to extend the benefits of modern technology to developing nations. “When you live in a place with frequent power outages, it changes your way of teaching.”

Eliminating distractions

Professor Marzari joined EPFL six years ago and today teaches two Master’s classes. The first is on the fundamentals of solid-state materials, where he nevertheless takes on a broader perspective. “For instance, to explain how materials work I’ll draw a parallel with the fundamental laws of nature.” And the second – also attended by PhD students – involves using online computer simulations to apply the theory learned in class.

One thing Professor Marzari does not tolerate is students using their smartphones, laptops or tablets during his lectures. He keeps an eagle eye out for such infractions and interrupts his lecture if he catches one. “I demand my students’ full attention so they don’t lose track of what I’m saying. I try to simplify the concepts as much as possible and get straight to the point. If a student doesn’t understand something, that’s my problem.” He gives an oral exam in his fundamentals class in order to make 100% sure that his students have mastered the material. “It’s hard to fake it when you’re talking to your professor face to face.” In his applied theory class, students have to complete four assignments to show that they have understood the thought processes and software programs. Marzari also heads Switzerland’s MARVEL research center, which uses advanced simulation software to develop new materials. Marzari is acutely aware that human intelligence coupled with computing power can achieve wonders – and he strives to incorporate that notion into his classes.

Author: Laureline Duvillard