“We could create devices like the ones you see in Star Trek”

Hatice Altug© Alain Herzog / 2019 EPFL

Hatice Altug© Alain Herzog / 2019 EPFL

For EPFL’s 50th anniversary, the School of Engineering is publishing a series of portraits of its female professors. Today we meet Hatice Altug.

As part of her quest to develop advanced health diagnostic tools, Hatice Altug, an associate professor at EPFL, has spent the past few years figuring out how to use nanoparticles to control and harness light. What’s this brilliant researcher’s secret? A boundless curiosity about science.

Curiosity has its risks, but it’s undeniably one of the driving forces behind scientific progress. That’s certainly true for Hatice Altug, an associate professor in charge of EPFL’s Bionanophotonic Systems Laboratory at the School of Engineering.

As a child, Altug would pepper her teachers with questions about nature and science. “It got to a point where they couldn’t answer my questions anymore, and that’s when I decided I needed to study science,” she says.

Fast forward to 2019. Altug is currently developing powerful, next-generation health diagnostic tools. “We want to create tiny portable devices that people can use to assess their health on the spot – like in Star Trek,” she says with a smile. “This is certainly a challenging task that will require both scientific and technological advancements.”

Altug’s approach combines photonics and nanotechnologies. She creates nanometric-sized objects (one nanometer is one billionth of a meter) able to manipulate light – by amplifying it, dispersing it or changing its flow. These powerful devices can help detect molecules with unprecedented precision. “We hope that our research will improve human well-being by helping diagnose serious diseases at an early stage,” says Altug. “This is a fascinating field of study because it involves both fundamental and applied research.”

The only woman in a class of quiet young men

Before discovering photonics, Altug took an interest in physics. In the very first course she signed up for, she became fascinated by the different forces – gravitational, electromagnetic and so on – that govern the world.

Altug was born and raised in Turkey. Thanks to her good grades, she was among a group of 15 Turkish students chosen for advanced physics studies at Bilkent University.

The program was intellectually rewarding, but not all was perfect. “For the four years I was there, I was the only woman in the class, and there were only three women in the entire physics department,” she says. “Sometimes I felt quite alone among my peers. It took two years for some of my male classmates to even talk to me. But this experience only made me stronger.”

Eureka moments

Altug completed her Master’s and PhD at Stanford University. This was uncommon at the time, but her parents, both of whom were teachers, encouraged and supported her. “I was so happy to be studying alongside other women. My gender wasn’t an issue anymore – I just felt like a researcher.” She went on to Harvard Medical School and Boston University.

She joined EPFL in 2013 and currently heads up a group of about 15 researchers. Her greatest satisfaction? Those ‘eureka’ moments in research. “During my PhD, I was working on a really small ‘nano-laser’ that hadn’t functioned properly for months. When it finally produced light, it felt like a miracle coming out of the darkness,” she says, relishing the memory. “When I see my students experience the same thing, their eyes brimming with joy, it makes me very proud.”

“Don’t kill your inner child”

Altug, the mother of a three-year-old, has already published articles in some of the world’s leading journals. “I’ve always aimed high and dreamed big, and I’ve always had good role models,” she says. “I’m especially driven by the idea of someday changing people’s lives by tapping into physical phenomena we don’t yet understand well.”

What advice would she give to girls interested in studying science? “Be curious, inventive and brave. Don’t be afraid to choose your own path, and don’t kill your inner child.” She adds: “As women, you may find you have to prove yourself more in today’s society, but a career in science is perfectly possible. There’s never a dull moment in this field.”