Silke Bühler-Paschen, professor, Technical University of Vienna

Before Silke Bühler-Paschen shone in material sciences, the German physicist was a top-class gymnast. She practised for five hours a day—and for a bit of variety, regularly participated in triathlon competitions.

Perhaps this competitive edge prepared her for the male-dominated physics arena. “I never felt disadvantaged or discriminated against as a woman throughout my career,” she says. (see CV)

Next May she will become the first female full professor of physics at the Technical University of Vienna in Austria — in the city of Ludwig Boltzmann and Erwin Schrödinger.

The charismatic Frenchwoman Marie-Noëlle Bussac, whom she met during her postgraduate training in solid-state physics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, taught her that with discipline, hardiness and dedication one can combine a successful scientific career and a family. Bussac, a theoretical physicist at the École Polytechnique in Paris, and mother of two, became a friend and role model to the young student. Bühler-Paschen now has daughters aged six and three, and is expecting her third child just before she leaves for Vienna next spring.

After a postdoctoral stay in Zurich she won an independent research position at the German Max Planck Society, which has a special programme to support excellent female researchers. In Dresden, her research has focused on clathrates, cage-like crystals that can trap molecules. Researchers hope to use these compounds to develop special materials with low thermoelectric conductivity, which could replace common cooling agents such as liquid nitrogen. She finds both sides, the basic physical properties of new materials and their potential for application, equally motivating stimuli for her work.

Bühler-Paschen is used to moving around: her father's work in industrial technology took the family to numerous places, including Brazil. Now, a full-time nanny assists her young family at home and during research stays such as one in Japan. And although she no longer has time for gymnastics championships, running and dancing provide a link with her sporting past — and perhaps keep her honed to compete with the rest of the physics community.