Marta Tarkanovskaja: How To Get a Nobel Prize

Marta Tarkanovskaja is the only young Estonian scientist who was granted a chance to meet with the Nobel Laureates and participate in the reputable 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting this year. Marta is also a doctoral student of materials science both at the University of Tartu and University of Turku.

We will hereby forward you Marta’s thoughts about her work, her studies at two universities, and particularly about meeting with prestigious Nobel Laureates.

Marta Tarkanovskaja

Marta Tarkanovskaja. Photo from a personal archive

Materials science has always been an interest

I was always curious about how things work and from what different materials they are made. Thus, I did not think long about what I should study. Materials science is just perfect for me. It is an interdisciplinary field of science, something that connects physics, chemistry, and engineering. Such interdisciplinarity offered me an opportunity to test myself in different fields of science; for example, during my bachelor studies I studied organic chemistry by synthesizing polymeric ionic liquids, while during my master’s studies I focused on inorganic sol-gel chemistry and elaboration of ionogels.

Currently, I study at two universities: we have a joint supervision agreement between Tartu and Turku Universities, which leads to one doctoral thesis and two doctoral degrees from the respective universities. Being a part of two universities is fun and much more educational. You get to work with more people, in different laboratories, and as a result learn more. I like to work in Finland. I find that I am super productive there, since I do not have too many distractions while in a foreign country.

In my doctoral thesis I am studying chemical physics and investigating light-matter interactions. So, I am actually a bad girl who destroys molecules and bunches of molecules (clusters) using synchrotron or gas discharge lamp radiation. Sometimes it is necessary to destroy things to know how they work. Under irradiation, electrons are being kicked out of the molecules, creating positively charged ions that could also fragment further. All the ions are analyzed with time-of-flight mass spectrometer, which produces a mass spectrum of the sample. The next step, in my opinion, is the most interesting one – you have to play detective to decipher obtained mass spectrum, considering all possible fragmentation pathways. In my work, I study fragmentation processes of ionic liquids and molecular clusters of acetamide and acetic acid.

Marta Tarkanovskaja

Doing a night shift at MAX-lab with my colleagues. Beamline I411 (Lund, Sweden, 2015). Photo from a personal archive

Marta Tarkanovskaja

At the end of my first beamtime, standing next to our experimental chamber with my supervisor and a colleague. Beamline I3 at the MAX-lab synchrotron (Lund, Sweden, 2013). Photo from a personal archive

Lindau Meetings – anything but ordinary!

Lindau Meetings have a long tradition and history. The idea of this annual event belongs to two physicians from Lindau – Gustav Wilhelm Parade and Franz Karl Hein. The first meeting was organized shortly after World War II in 1951. Since then, Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings have brought together 373 Nobelists and 30,000 young scientists from 91 countries. Annual Lindau Meetings are dedicated alternately to three natural science Nobel Prize disciplines: medicine or physiology, physics, and chemistry. Interdisciplinary meetings revolving around those three also occur every 5 years.

The application process to the 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting was a two-stage process. As a first step, I sent a bunch of papers (CV, supervisor’s recommendation letter, motivational letter) via post to the Estonian Academy of Sciences. I do not know how many applicants were there, but I know that from all the candidates the academy nominates only three, and I was lucky to be among them. Winning the national competition allowed me to continue with the application and fill in an electronic form for the Lindau Meeting scientific review panel evaluation. These reviewers evaluated applicants’ academic and research achievements, their motivation and dedication, as well as recommendations. I guess I had a good combination of the evaluation parameters in order to be selected for participation in the Lindau Meeting.

The conference took place in the small Bavarian town of Lindau. At first glance, it was an ordinary conference with lots of scientific presentations, one poster session, and coffee breaks. However, something was different. All the presentations were given by Nobel Laureates! Moreover, there was an opportunity to talk to them and other young researchers  from different countries in an informal atmosphere during coffee breaks, lunches, dinners, and various get-together events.

Marta Tarkanovskaja Lindau Meeting

Having lunch with Arthur B. McDonald and young researchers from different countries. Talking about the underrepresentation of women across almost every level of science and sharing ideas of what could be done to improve the situation. Arthur got his Nobel Prize in 2015 for the discovery of neutrino oscillations, which shows that neutrinos have mass. Photo from a personal archive

Undoubtedly, this conference was the most unusual conference I have ever been to! There were 29 Nobel Laureates and 400 young scientists from 80 different countries gathered together at the meeting. It was quite extraordinary, as you could only find more Nobel Laureates in Stockholm during the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony. Young researchers had an opportunity to live the “Lindau spirit” for one week and be involved in discussions with famous people in science, ask advice, and exchange thoughts about scientific careers and personal life.

For me the meeting with Nobel Laureates began one day earlier, as I was invited to take part in the Summer Festival of Science organized by German Federal Minister of Education and Research Johanna Wanka. There I met 40 fellow young scientists and for the first time in my life talked to a Nobel Laureate. This was Bill Phillips, who started a conversation by saying: “We [Nobel Laureates] are here because of you, so let’s talk”. Later on I realized how lucky I was to be the first one to talk to Bill. During the meeting it was very hard to approach him, because young scientists were constantly orbiting around Bill like electrons around the nucleus in an atom.

I also really wanted to meet with German physicist Theodor Hänsch, who is also interested in interactions between light and matter. Theodor received his Nobel Prize in 2005 for contributions to the development of laser-based precision spectroscopy, including the optical frequency comb technique. I also attended a discussion session with him and managed to ask a couple of questions. I was amazed by his enthusiasm for science. To my question “Where do you get your motivation/inspiration?”, Theodor answered that life is boring if you are not in the lab doing something. For him being in the lab and experimenting is the highest entertainment. While doing so he can lose track of time. I call that type of personality a real scientist.


After the discussion session with Theodor W. Hänsch, who received his Nobel Prize in Physics in 2005. I managed to ask three questions, so he could not refuse to take a photo with me. I was amazed by his immense motivation and enthusiasm for science. Photo from a personal archive

Marta Tarkanovskaja Lindau Meeting

I got a moment to talk to Hiroshi Amano and thank him for his inspiring and honest lecture. Hiroshi won a Nobel Prize in 2014 for the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes (LEDs), which has enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources. In a way, we can blame him for our addiction to smartphones. Photo from a personal archive

What is the recipe for getting a Nobel Prize?

The scientific program of the 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting consisted of lectures, panel discussions, young scientist discussions, master classes, a poster session, and science breakfasts. We had lots of memorable presentations, starting from talks about very small things like elementary particles (neutrinos, Higgs particles) and ending with talks about enormously big things, such as our universe. All the talks are available to the general public on the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting website.

Many young scientists were interested in knowing the recipe for getting a Nobel prize. Klaus von Klitzing (Nobel Laureate, Physics 1985) humorously suggested to move to Switzerland and eat lots of chocolate, since in a correlation between the number of Nobel Laureates and chocolate consumption per population of 10 million Switzerland is the leader. The second and the easiest option to get a Nobel Prize was to ask Klaus to hold his medal. Since I had the privilege of a dinner in the company of Klaus von Klitzing, I took this opportunity. Now I can say that I got a Nobel Prize… for two minutes.

Marta Tarkanovskaja

“This is the Nobel Prize medal I borrowed for the photo from Klaus von Klitzing on his birthday. Although it looks like a gold chocolate medal, this one is real. I checked”. Photo from a personal archive

Grab the opportunity!

Seriously speaking, after spending one week with Nobel laureates I realized that if you are optimistic, think hard, do what you love, and work on what you are passionate about, then everything is possible. Lindau Meeting was something extraordinary. It was educational, inspiring, and fun. During this meeting I created a large network of friends with whom I hope to collaborate on scientific projects in the future. The most important thing I realized is that Nobel Laureates are normal people who also experience the same problems in their research as I do in mine. The biggest problem for me is being stuck with something and failing to find an answer. It was good to know that, for example, Klaus von Klitzing was also stuck many times. One good piece of advice that I got from him was when he answered my question “What to do in those situations?” by saying that in any case I should be optimistic and the answer would come sooner or later.

Now I am a bit jealous of people who still have the chance to take part in this inspiring event. You can participate only once, unless you get a Nobel prize, of course, and then you are welcome to come back and share your recipe for success. Next year’s meeting will be dedicated to chemistry. Apply, be selected, get inspired, and then create a better world!

Marta Tarkanovskaja Lindau Meeting

This is the last photograph I took during the Lindau Meeting. I left the yacht earlier, as my hotel was on our first stop from Mainau island, and when I turned back I saw this epic view. All the participants, including many friends that I made on this conference, were waving at me. I could not hold back a tear. Lindau Meeting is over. What an experience! Photo from a personal archive

Marta Tarkanovskaja is a doctoral student of materials science both at the University of Tartu and University of Turku

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