Tom Wirtz, pictured, is a researcher at the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (List)
"Luxembourg has so much to offer and is certainly more than a bank or a petrol station"
Mister "Mass Spectrometry", Tom Wirtz leads a world-record-holding team at the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology working on spatial resolution in ion microscopy and developing microscopes that show features 10,000 times smaller than the diameter of a hair.
Jess Bauldry: Tell us about what you do for a living?
Tom Wirtz: I’m a researcher at the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (List). I’m heading a group specialised in developing new scientific instruments for nano-analystics, i.e. instruments allowing scientists to image tiny features (such as nanoparticles) and also to determine what these tiny features are made of (chemical composition).
What were the steps you took to reach the position you currently hold?
After studying physics in Strasbourg, I joined Public Research Center Gabriel Lippmann (CRP-GL) in 1999 to perform my PhD thesis in the field of mass spectrometry (a technique used for the chemical/elemental analysis of materials) and obtained my PhD diploma from the Institut National Polytechnique de Lorraine Nancy (INPL) in 2002. These were very exciting years for public research in Luxembourg, with the creation of the National Research Fund (FNR), which boosted the development of the CRPs. I wanted to be part of this adventure and initiated a couple of instrument development projects at CRP-GL after finishing my PhD thesis. This R&D activity focusing on instrument development grew steadily over the years, and I progressively made my way in CRP-GL (which merged into List in 2015) from PhD student to researcher and now group leader of a team composed of 18 scientists, engineers and PhD students.
To what extent do you think you contribute to Luxembourg’s international image?
It is crucial that Luxembourg is made visible internationally under a number of different angles to get rid of this “Luxembourg is merely a bank and petrol station” cliché. As a scientist, I want to be part of this effort. As a team, we are presenting our achievements internationally via scientific conferences, journals and networking events and we collaborate with prestigious universities, research centres and companies all over the world. We certainly can’t impress with quantity (at international conferences, Luxembourg typically has a couple of representatives amongst a few hundred or thousands of scientists), but the excellent quality of our research results is recognised by peers internationally and is hence our contribution to the Luxembourg nation branding.
How is science in Luxembourg positioned on the international scene?
Research made in Luxembourg has significantly increased its international visibility, credibility and impact over the last ten years. Luxembourg managed to become an attractive place for researchers by creating a dynamic environment (budget spent on R&D, ecosystem for start-ups, multilingual environment, etc.). I personally strongly believe in and stick to an approach which can probably be qualified as a successful Luxembourgish tradition: as Luxembourg is small, one better identifies promising niches and focuses a maximum of efforts on those niches, rather than being mainstream. My team’s research activity, focusing on the development of scientific instrumentation like ion microscopes and mass spectrometers, clearly is such a niche. Here at List, we were able to create a critical mass in this field, and hence are able to create a lot of impact and visibility internationally. As a team we are, for instance, very proud to be world-record holders for spatial resolution in ion microscopy: the microscopes we developed and that are now being commercialised internationally allow scientists to see the smallest features ever in such instruments (resolution of 10 nanometers, i.e. 10.000 times smaller than the diameter of a hair).
As a country, Luxembourg is... reliable, dynamic and open, the government said in its nation branding exercise. To what extent do you agree with these words and why?
I fully agree! As a small nation, Luxembourg has to be open and dynamic to “reinvent” and reposition itself periodically. This is even more important if Luxembourg wants to keep its high quality of life. The multicultural dimension of Luxembourg certainly also adds to this openness.
What do the people you meet and work with abroad say about Luxembourg?
The first positive thing is that for a very long time now, I haven’t met anyone anywhere from my community who didn’t know what Luxembourg is and where it is situated. Times when people guessed that Luxembourg was an island in the South Pacific seem to be a thing of the past. People show positive curiousity and ask a lot of questions, e.g. about what it feels like to be “one of only a few”, questions about how the country manages and benefits from so many languages, questions about Luxembourg’s history, but interestingly also a lot of questions about Luxembourg’s future plans.
And what do you answer them to make them want to visit Luxembourg?
One good reason to make a lot of my colleagues from abroad and representatives of international companies interested in our R&D work visit Luxembourg is to come and see List’s impressive facilities on the Belval campus and discuss with our team about on-going and future collaborations. Of course, I won’t let them return to their home country without showing them at least a few of the non-scientific highlights that Luxembourg has to offer, the favourite ones often being a visit of Luxembourg city and a tour along the Moselle with a private visit of a winery.
When were you particularly proud of Luxembourg?
The first things that cross my mind with respect to this question are a number of outstanding successes at various sports events, the last one probably being Gilles Müller's win over Rafael Nadal in Wimbledon this summer, which I was watching covertly on my mobile phone while sitting in a conference room in Eindhoven. More globally, I would say that what makes me particularly proud about Luxembourg is its ability and agility to adapt, moving from a steel era to an economy heavily based on the finance sector and now diversifying towards innovating technology related activities.
In your mind, who would you say is a fine example of an “ambassadors” of the Luxembourg brand abroad?
Everybody ranging from a tourist to a minister, including expatriates, sportsmen, artists, scientists, etc. who contribute to spreading the message that Luxembourg has so much to offer and is certainly more than a bank or a petrol station