NAS Featured scientist
Prof Tjaart Krüger - Department of Physics
Q: Why did you choose to study Physics?
A: Firstly, Physics teaches one to solve problems from first principles, an invaluable skill in all areas of life. Secondly, I wanted to understand how the world around me works and realised that Physics holds the key. Physics is everywhere. When it hit home that the laws and principles of Physics also govern the machinery of life, I fell in love with Biophysics. Mixing the complex beauty of Biology with the rigour of Physics still amazes me every day.
Q: Why is Physics important?
A: Without the advances in Physics during the past two centuries, the world would have looked entirely different because most technological advances are based on discoveries in Physics - this is no exception for the world we live in today: The complex problems of today demand multidisciplinary efforts, and since Physics is a fundamental, enabling science, it plays a critical role in addressing these issues.
Q: Highlights of your career so far?
A: Going to Amsterdam for my PhD and postdoc was undoubtedly a life-changing experience. Not only was it a career shift to switch from an MSc in Space Physics to a PhD in Biophysics, but the vibrant scientific environment was highly stimulating. The next highlight was returning to South Africa and establishing the first Biophysics research group in South Africa in a physics department. It’s a great privilege to be involved with pioneering work in the continent and help establish and grow a new field of research. The stimulating environments of international conferences are also highlights. I remember being at a conference in Berlin in 2014 where at some point, I was talking to W.E. Moerner from Stanford University, with whom I was collaborating at that stage. The next moment, Stefan Hell joined the discussion. Little did I know that a few weeks later, both of them would become Nobel Laureates!
Q: Please give us a glimpse of your most recent research:
A: The light-harvesting protein complexes of photosynthetic organisms are amazing molecular machines. They use quantum mechanics to optimise their functions, a property that has captivated physicists for the past few decades. They also feature as light-sensitive nano-switches to maintain a delicate balance between their light-harvesting and photoprotective functions. Furthermore, they exhibit an incredible variety - the light-harvesting complexes of each photosynthetic organism are different, sometimes entirely different! These systems are also a great source of inspiration for finding green, sustainable energy solutions for humankind. I want to understand the fundamental properties of these intriguing molecular machines. One of our approaches is to develop new experimental methods to explore these systems in unique ways. Another approach is to investigate to what extent we can improve their properties, using light, chemistry, and gold nanoparticles as parts of our toolkit.
Q: Describe a day in the life of Prof Krüger.
There is never a dull moment. Every day is different, and that is what I like! Being a scientist exposes one to diverse opportunities, which involve teaching and a lot of writing, marketing, computer coding, designing new experimental equipment, project management, research discussions with students and collaborators, and occasionally even some web design and graphical design. Each day involves a different selection from this list of activities. Amongst the most exciting moments are when I get a chance to “get my hands dirty” and do some research myself. After work, my wife and five children are my love and priority. I’m thoroughly enjoying all the different phases of my children growing up and discovering life.
Q: What qualities does a good scientist need?
A: Perseverance (no matter what obstacles you encounter), creativity (which requires knowing the cutting-edge problems, reading widely, and setting aside sufficient time for reflective thinking), good interpersonal skills (because it’s improbable that you’ll succeed doing impactful research on your own), good time-management skills (to successfully juggle all the responsibilities you have to face each day), and a healthy work-life balance (no matter how stimulating your work is).
Q: What words/beliefs do you live by?
A: I believe that the God of the Bible is the great Architect of the universe. It is, therefore, an enormous privilege and joy to discover a teeny-tiny bit of this marvellous Masterpiece! Even more astounding is that God wants to be intimately involved with our lives. This makes me tick. It gives me a deep sense of peace and joy and the motivation that everything I do is worth doing well.
Q: Who is your role model/mentor?
A: My grandfather is a great role model for me. He was one of the key people in my life to show me the beauty of nature through the eyes of a physicist. Even today, at age 94, he is still researching Physics and is still very enthusiastic and supportive of my research.
Q: Do you have any advice for prospective physicists?
A: Keep a curious mind and feed your curiosity with excellent resources like the thousands of highly stimulating educational websites, podcasts and video channels that are at our disposal. Find people who are passionate about their research and learn from them. Learn to see every part of the world through the eyes of a physicist. See Mathematics as a handy tool for physicists to describe the world around us. Finally, a call to those who want to make a difference in others’ lives: do not blame your circumstances, your history or other people but rise above that and embrace every opportunity that comes your way.