Massimiliano Esposito works in one of the few research fields that still use a blackboard, pen and paper: theoretical physics. After research stays in Belgium and the US, the Italian-become-Luxembourg-national returned to Luxembourg, to take up his FNR ATTRACT Fellowship. Five years later as the ATTRACT funding concludes and he embarks on a prestigious ERC-funded project, Massimiliano spoke to us about how his team is stronger than ever and how lucky he feels that he can focus on his research and put funding concerns aside.
Massimiliano, you grew up in Luxembourg, but left to pursue your studies in Belgium and the USA after finishing high school. Were you actively looking to return to Luxembourg or was it an opportunity that arose?
“It was an opportunity that came up. I spent four years in the US and then I returned to Belgium, where I had lived before going to the US. I had the chance to apply for an FNR ATTRACT Fellowship and I was lucky to get it. It gave me very interesting opportunities, because I could build my own research group – it was important for me to be autonomous and do things the way I wanted to at that point in my career.”
Did you always want to be a physicist?
“Yes and no. In school, I loved physics, but I also loved biology. When I was finishing high school, I faced the dilemma of having to choose between them. I chose to study chemistry – not because I like it, but because it was the bridge between those two subjects.
“Early on, I realised I was more interested in the physics aspect of chemistry and from then I started taking as many physics classes as I could, and got a PhD in theoretical physics. I do, however, think it comes to my advantage that I am a physicist with a good understanding of biology and chemistry, and I do apply this knowledge in my research.”
“In school, I loved physics, but I also loved biology. When I was finishing high school, I faced the dilemma of having to choose between them. I chose to study chemistry – not because I like it, but because it was the bridge between those two subjects.”
You’re a physicist, but what exactly do you do?
“In short, my field of research is statistical physics and thermodynamics, a branch of theoretical physics. Historically, thermodynamics is the science that explains how to convert heat into useful forms of energy, such as mechanical works. It developed during the industrial revolution, when people were trying to figure out how much wood they needed to burn to pump a certain amount of water out of a mine.
“My specialisation is something that emerged over the last 20 years: We want to understand how small machines – such as molecular motors or nanocircuits – can operate efficiently, accurately and fast. The concepts that were developed to address these questions for big machines, such as planes, need to be reconsidered at the molecular scale. What I do is to develop the mathematical theory that helps us answer these questions.
In 2016, you were awarded a sought-after Consolidator Grant by the European Research Council (ERC), which will run until 2021. What difference has your ATTRACT Fellowship made to where you are now?
“My ERC grant is a product of my 5 years of research under ATTRACT. Typically as a Postdoc you are ‘safe’ for one or two years, but thanks to ATTRACT I had five years to focus on my research, which allowed me to go after more interesting and difficult research problems.
“For example, I had some ideas on how to study the thermodynamics of open chemical reaction networks, but I knew that it was a bit risky. The ATTRACT project gave me the time to frame these ideas into a proper problem and start solving it – and this topic became a key aspect of my ERC Fellowship.
“I was also very lucky that I got my ERC grant right as my ATTRACT funding was coming to an end: this means 10 years of funding guaranteed, first ATTRACT and now ERC – it’s fantastic.”
The fact that your ERC project starts right as your ATTRACT project concludes must also be a relief for your research group. How is your group set up and how has it been impacted by your ERC grant?
“Theory typically works with smaller groups, and you can get a lot done with 5 or 6 people, which is around the size my group was during my ATTRACT Fellowship. Since I got my ERC grant, my group has temporarily gone up to 10, which I feel is the upper limit for a group that works on basic theory and conceptual problems.
“We don’t need manpower to conduct experiments in a lab, we need bright ideas and deep insight on how to tackle new, difficult problems. When groups get too big, there is a tendency to do more of what you already know can be done and less of the more challenging problems which require more time to think.”
What is your favourite part of your job?
“It’s definitely the research part by far.”
Your work is more mathematical and theoretical so you don’t really have to spend time in a lab doing experiments. What does your research look like in practice?
“It involves a blackboard and paper! The kind of research we do is conceptual. Understanding which questions need to be asked brings you halfway toward solving the problem. If you know the right questions, it is usually not too difficult to come up with reasonable answers on how to solve them.
“Part of the problem when you face complex natural phenomenon is how to ask the right questions and structure your thinking with help of mathematics to understand what is going on. Sometimes one way of looking at a problem makes things extremely complicated, but a different angle can reveal a lot of simplicity, and you have these ‘wow’ moments where it all starts to makes sense.”
“My ERC grant is a product of my 5 years of research under ATTRACT. Typically as a Postdoc you are ‘safe’ for one or two years, but thanks to ATTRACT I had five years to focus on my research, which allowed me to go after more interesting and difficult research problems.”
How is your work life balance, would you say you work all the time?
“Well, I am extremely lucky that my partner is also a researcher. We have been on the research journey together for some time, and we have an understanding that we need to work a lot and it has always been part of our common activity: we work all the time!
“Even when we go jogging, we sometimes discuss work, but it has changed since we had kids – we used to work on weekends, not so much now, although we do work when the kids sleep.
“I don’t do this for money or recognition – there are plenty of other careers where you can get more of that – I do it because I enjoy it. There are not many jobs around where you can realise your own ideas. Also, contributing to mankind’s understanding of how nature works is a wonderful feeling. As for every job, there are aspects that are boring and repetitive, such as administration, but I never complain about the science. It is actually a struggle to keep enough time dedicated to pure research.”
You are passionate about physics, but why did you become a researcher in this field?
“I guess it just kind of happened. At University, I was never satisfied with the level of answers I got, so I kept pushing and pushing. I think it’s natural – if you keep asking ‘why, why, why’, at some point you will find there is no answer yet, and you have to come up with your own answers – and suddenly you realise that you are doing research.”
“I don’t do this for money or recognition – there are plenty of other careers where you can get more of that – I do it because I enjoy it. There are not many jobs around where you can realise your own ideas.”
Who is your biggest role model in your domain?
“Science is a collective effort and isolating one person is tricky. In that respect, there are many heroes but one impossible to avoid is Einstein – he completely reshaped theoretical physics.”
What have been your highlights since you came back to Luxembourg in 2012?
“In terms of recognition, getting an ERC grant was a highlight. As for scientific highlights, there is our thermodynamic theory of open chemical reaction networks, which started as a rough idea, but after five years gave rise to fundamentally new theory. We laid the foundation of a systematic approach to this field and we are starting to get recognition for it, internationally.”
“I also think that after five years, I have managed to put up a really strong team of talented people with a unique expertise, worldwide. I think it’s an achievement to have created this pole of excellence in Luxembourg.”
Luxembourg’s research landscape has grown quickly considering its young age. What do you think is the key to boosting Luxembourg’s competitiveness in research?
“Hire excellent people and the rest will follow! When the president of the ERC visited Luxembourg that is exactly what he said – he said if you support excellent science, you most likely tick the boxes for any other criteria, and I think that is true. If you bring excellent people together in one place, where funding is available and the quality of life is attractive, there is enormous potential for a top university here in Luxembourg. We follow this strategy in the physics research unit and have been very successful with it.”
 Molecular motors, also called molecular machines, are either natural or synthetic molecules that convert chemical energy into mechanical forces and motion in living organisms.
 Nanocircuits are basic electrical circuits that are designed and operated in the nanometre scale. 1 nanometre = one-billionth of a metre. One strand of human hair is around 100,000 nanometres in diameter.
Published 14 December 2017
“After five years, I have managed to put up a really strong team of talented people with a unique expertise, worldwide. I think it’s an achievement to have created this pole of excellence in Luxembourg.”
MASSIMILIANO ESPOSITO’S ROAD TO ATTRACT
The ATTRACT programme is designed for researchers not yet established in Luxembourg, who demonstrate the potential to become leaders in their field of research. The scheme offers promising junior researchers the opportunity to set up their own research team within one of the country’s research institutions. The financial contribution by the FNR can be up to 1.5 MEUR for Starting Investigators (Postdoc & Junior Researcher level) or 2 MEUR for Consolidating Investigators (Established Researcher level). In the 2018/19 Call, the FNR expects to be able to fund 2 projects. Projects have a lifespan of 5 years. The next ATTRACT deadline is 15 November 2018 (pre-proposals). Find out more