He won medals at international chemistry olympiads even as a teenager. Now Robert Pollice adds to his collection the Prix Schläfli in Chemistry, for researching material properties that are, amongst other things, important in nanomedicine.
When you talk to Robert Pollice, you are inevitably reminded of Goethe's Faust. The young chemist's doctoral thesis was about investigating "what holds the world together." This may sound overblown but it is not overstated. In his dissertation, Pollice took a closer look at London forces, as they are called. Omnipresent, these forces ensure that large molecules, in particular, stick together and form stable materials. "In principle, we wanted to find out how to amplify these forces," says Pollice. He concentrated on the study of the fundamental interactions in perfluoroalkanes and the role of the London forces therein. One of the most common perfluoralkanes is Teflon, which is used as a coating in non-stick frying pans. Despite health risks and a poor environmental record, perfluoroalkanes are widespread due to a lack of alternatives. "So our findings are the first step towards developing new materials with similar properties but without the negative side effects," says Pollice. He also sees potential applications in medicine, for example in nanocapsules.
Pollice and his two older brothers grew up in a family of teachers in Lower Austria. He has always been interested in mathematics and natural sciences, but it was thanks to his teacher that he really got into chemistry. She motivated him to participate in the chemistry Olympiads, in which he represented Austria in 2009 and 2010 and ranked among the 15 best. "That was an extremely good experience," says the 28-year-old. This was followed by his decision to study chemistry at the Vienna University of Technology. He graduated with distinction and had many opportunities for pursuing a doctorate degree. He chose ETH Zurich, not least because of the university's good reputation and its excellent facilities but most importantly, to learn a lot of new things. Zurich seemed to offer the most in that respect.
Even if some successes have accompanied Pollice's career so far, the Prix Schläfli award means "a lot" to him. In his own words: "this is the best prize I have ever won." The chemist, who is currently researching organic materials for LED displays in Toronto, is particularly looking forward to the lecture tour and to seeing his professor again - at the mercy of the COVID-19 pandemic. "Communicating science to a wider audience is something really big," Pollice notes. In the past, science had given too little thought to how to go about reaching the average citizen. But as the coronavirus crisis shows, if experts can explain the necessary measures in simple terms, then it works. That is why the pandemic is also an opportunity for science. That said, Pollice would also like to see it end soon. The Real Madrid fan misses playing football and swimming.
Pollice definitely sees his future in science. "Following my postdoctoral research in Toronto, I would like to continue my research work at a university, either in North America or Europe." If he can't continue, it will not be because of his field of investigation: what holds the world together at its core are forces that act everywhere.
The orbits of dwarf galaxies, forces in materials such as Teflon, tracing history through pollen, a new protective layer at root tips – these are the topics for which the Swiss Academy of Sciences (SCNAT) has awarded the Prix Schläfli 2020 to the four most important insights gained by young researchers at Swiss universities. Alice Berhin (Biology), Oliver Müller (Astronomy), Robert Pollice (Chemistry) and Fabian Rey (Geosciences) receive the prize for the findings arrived at in their dissertations. Four of the candidates for the Prix Schläfli award were also selected as Young Scientists at the internationally prestigious 70th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.