New tools to unravel the mysteries of water

Sylvie Roke in her laboratory © 2020 Alain Herzog

Sylvie Roke in her laboratory © 2020 Alain Herzog

Sylvie Roke, professor in bioengineering at EPFL, has just been elected by her peers as a Fellow of the American Physical Society (APS). This is a rare distinction, that is awarded for her “seminal contributions to scattering and imaging technologies to enable pioneering studies of complex aqueous systems and their interfaces.”

You may think we know everything about water, but scientists are still trying to figure out the exact physical and chemical reactions that take place at the water surface, between water molecules and their surroundings. At EPFL’s Laboratory for Fundamental BioPhotonics, which she heads, Sylvie Roke is developing new methods for identifying the phenomena that occur at the microscopic and even nanometric scale. And it’s for this important contribution to fundamental biophotonics that the American Physical Society (APS) has named her a Fellow – a prestigious distinction granted to some of the world’s most renowned physicists. “It’s wonderful for the research my team and I have done over the past several years to be recognized like this,” says Roke.

No more than 0.5% of APS members (which currently total over 50,000) are granted this distinction every year. The APS Fellowship Program was created to reward members who have made major advances in the field of physics, innovative contributions to the application of physics research, or significant contributions to the teaching of physics.

A bold approach recognized by her peers

© 2020 Alain Herzog

Roke’s approach to research can be considered risky because she often tries out new things. “We want to find answers to the most fundamental questions, which means taking our research in unconventional directions,” she says. Early on, that approach was sometimes criticized by other scientists. “That makes it even more gratifying to see this kind of appreciation for our work, and the choices we’ve made. Not just for me but for everyone on my team,” she adds.

Aqueous interfaces are usually studied under vacuum or considered as passive interfaces between water and air where only secondary phenomena occur. But scientists are finding that this region plays a crucial role in most physical, chemical, biological and geological reactions involving water. “Interfacial water phenomena can take place on different length scales, from the sub-nanometric to the micron – such as for undulation, organelles, membranes and liposomes – and usually occur in solid or liquid environments that are not at all comparable with a vacuum or just air. Other factors are also at play, such as flow dynamics and electrostatic fields,” says Roke.

The poor understanding of interfacial water phenomena is generally due to a lack of tools needed to observe them. Roke’s research aims to develop non-invasive optical methods for probing aqueous systems and obtaining a better understanding of the molecular properties of water in a variety of environments such as solutions, living organisms, inside and outside water droplets, and cell membranes.

The American Physical Society was founded in 1899 and today has some 50,000 members. It publishes around a dozen physics journals, including Physical Review and Physical Review Letters, and holds a number of industry conferences.