“When I was little, I clearly remember reading an article on carbon nanotubes in a kids’ science magazine. And that’s what I ended up doing my thesis on!” Christophe Galland, who’s now specialized in optical spectroscopy and quantum optics, can’t pinpoint exactly when science became part of his life, although he’s always been a bit of a math geek. “I think my teachers really had a decisive influence later on,” says Galland. “I had a physics teacher who was really good at explaining the link between equations and daily phenomena.” In the battle between math and physics, physics came out on top – it’s more concrete and more tangible.
So it wasn’t fate that got him where he is, although there were times as a student when he wasn’t sure where his path would take him. After studying at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, he learned about the realities of working in a lab when he joined ETH in Zurich for his thesis in quantum optics. “When I completed my thesis, I thought about leaving research to focus on teaching.” But what really fascinated him was the dual role of the professors who trained him: “They were world-renowned researchers and also very good teachers and instructors.”
Life in the academic world
Researchers commonly spend some time abroad developing their career – and Galland was keen on delving deeper into his field – so as a post-doc he headed to the Los Alamos National Lab and then the University of Delaware.
He landed at EPFL in 2013, thanks to an Ambizione grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation. He’s been running EPFL’s Laboratory of Quantum and Nano-Optics since 2017. With his ten-strong team, he continues to seek out the secrets that can be revealed by light.
A pinch of philosophy
When you ask Galland whether he knew as a student how his career would play out, it becomes clear that he’s simply guided by his passion. “There are so many uncertainties in an academic career that I just took things one step at a time,” he says. “Even now, I don’t know what will be my position in two years’ time. If you work hard, doors open for you, but you have to be ready to seize opportunities that weren’t necessarily part of your plan.”
The lab work is also unpredictable on a daily basis. Each experiment brings its own surprises. And he’s constantly challenging himself. “In quantum physics, we’re dealing with really counter-intuitive phenomena,” explains Galland. “We have to ask ourselves quite philosophical questions when we’re interpreting some of our results.”
And what’s more philosophical than light, a word that can be interpreted in so many ways? This budding philosopher’s lab is filled with lasers, home-built microscopes and single-photon counters for studying the interaction between light and matter. Applying a range of optical techniques, Galland and his colleagues use it to detect and measure molecule vibrations and other phenomena taking place at the atomic level.
A thirst for knowledge
“My work makes me even more curious,” says Galland. “It makes me want to explain things and be as rational as possible.” He’s honest with himself and recognizes that he finds it hard to draw a line between his professional and private life, although he does enjoy hiking, cycling and playing the piano. “I’m always thinking about work to some extent,” he says. “My wife’s a medical doctor, and she’s continued to do research after her PhD, so we talk a lot about our day-to-day professional experiences. That helps me a lot, especially on the human side of things, because doctors and academics don’t think and act in the same way.”
For Galland, research isn’t just about deciphering the world around us and driving innovation. More than anything, it’s a training tool: “I think that the greatest impact of research on society is that we’re passing on our passion and our knowledge to our Bachelor’s, Master’s and PhD students.” For now, Galland is happy to keep probing the laws of quantum mechanics and nanomaterials at EPFL.