Stefan Maier (PhD '03) has established a strong track record in community building, from Imperial College London to his current role as the Head of the School of Physics and Astronomy at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. His mentorship has had a global academic impact, with over 21 members of his various research groups now holding academic positions. As a researcher, Maier has also made significant contributions to the field of nanophotonics, most notably the use of light together with nanostructures to control and enhance light matter interactions in biosensing and optoelectronics.
ENGenuity spoke with Maier about his academic influences and how his time at Caltech shaped him as both a scholar and a mentor.
ENGenuity: How would you describe your professional contributions and what you're currently doing?
Stefan Maier: My career trajectory has changed quite a bit as I've moved from mainly running a research group to taking on leadership roles. My main job now is the Head of the School of Physics and Astronomy at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. At the same time, I continue to have a research group here, and I have one at Imperial College as well.
What I've found over the twenty years since defending my PhD at Caltech with Professor Harry Atwater [Otis Booth Leadership Chair, Division of Engineering and Applied Science; Howard Hughes Professor of Applied Physics and Materials Science; Director, Liquid Sunlight Alliance] is that apart from working on science and new discoveries, what drives me the most is the development of people. The development of students and postdocs is something I'm very proud of. Trying to help build up the new scientists of the future is one of my main contributions now in addition to active research.
ENGenuity: Is there a particular project you're most proud of in your career?
Maier: From a science point of view, we have discovered how we can use nanostructures to focus light into small spaces and then use this for a variety of applications. For example, in the context of chemistry, we can use light together with nanostructures to control chemical reactions—this is one area that I'm quite proud of. We can link nanophotonics with new materials to build optoelectronic building blocks for future devices, such as novel ways of creating video holograms
Something that has driven me to stay in this field, which started with my PhD at Caltech, is that it is very interdisciplinary. Over the years I've had people in my group with backgrounds from electrical engineering, materials science, physics, mathematics, and chemistry.
ENGenuity: What originally brought you into this field and what initially sparked your interest in science?
Maier: As a late teenager, I discovered that I was pretty good at math, and I was fortunate enough to have a few good science teachers in high school. That led to undergraduate studies of physics and math. Then I wanted to go abroad. I applied to many schools on the east and west coasts of the U.S. and only Caltech took me, so that made my decision easy. I wanted to do biophysics at first with Stephen Quake [now a professor of bioengineering and applied physics at Stanford University], but as I took my first year of master's courses at Caltech, the new research field of nanophotonics was up and coming and piqued my interest. The opportunities of combining light with nanoscience and nanotechnology led to my PhD in that area.
ENGenuity: Is there a particular class or professor at Caltech that made the biggest impact on you?
Maier: Working in the group of Harry Atwater shaped how I wanted to conduct my own group later because Harry always had a very interdisciplinary group. He was known within applied physics and beyond at Caltech for drawing student talent from a very wide pool, sometimes with students from unusual backgrounds. This included people that had already been in industry, chemical engineers, materials scientists, and physicists. So, working in that interdisciplinary group shaped me.
From the course side, I really enjoyed the courses by Kerry Vahala [Ted and Ginger Jenkins Professor of Information Science and Technology and Applied Physics; Executive Officer for Applied Physics and Materials Science]. He is an outstanding teacher.
ENGenuity: How has your Caltech education shaped you throughout your career?
Maier: The main influence that I've taken away from Caltech is how important it is to interact with people outside of your bubble and from a broad background, both in terms of different scientific fields but also cultural backgrounds. The interdisciplinary aspect of Caltech and the diversity of people there were two elements that continue to influence me.
As I continue to recruit for my own research group, I try to always make sure that it's as diverse as possible in terms of expertise and cultural backgrounds. For example, at Imperial College, the biggest research group I had was about twenty-five people, and I had three people from the UK and everybody else was from somewhere else.
ENGenuity: What advice would you give to the next generation of Caltech students and alumni?
Maier: Enjoy the time there and make the most of what Caltech has to offer. Obviously, you need to succeed in your research project, but one of the strengths of Caltech that I see more and more after I've left is that it is such a diverse place with so much going on. Within such a small space, you can take so much away from listening to seminars and doing activities that are completely outside of your field. You will probably never get such an experience at other universities.
For alumni, it's good to stay in touch. Also, take the outlook of diversity and interdisciplinary research with you as long as you can because your options to spread out into other areas close pretty quickly after your PhD. Keep the curiosity up and explore other areas outside your field.
ENGenuity: What is your favorite story?
Maier: My favorite stories change all the time. I really like short stories from a few South American writers, particular Julio Cortázar. This got shaped because I took Spanish classes at Caltech. We had a couple of excellent teachers from Colombia and Mexico, and they opened my eyes to a whole different realm of literature that you never encounter in Europe. I'm particularly grateful to Daniel Garcia [Lecturer in Spanish], his classes were fantastic. I've tried to keep that interest up ever since.
ENGenuity: What is your favorite destination?
Maier: Some of the more off-the-beaten-path areas in the southern part of Africa, Botswana for example. Living mainly here in Melbourne, Australia, I like to explore some of the empty countryside. I'm still fascinated by having been to Tasmania recently.
ENGenuity: What gives you the most satisfaction in your work?
Maier: Seeing students and alumni from my group succeed afterwards in their career. That's something I'm most proud of. By now, I have twenty-one people from my group who have academic positions all over the world.
ENGenuity: What keeps you up at night?
Maier: Surprisingly little. I try to have as much of a balanced life as possible in order not to have something that keeps me up at night. I think that's a key aspect for any highly demanding job—you should not have something that keeps you up at night even if it's something enjoyable, like a science topic. I think you should have more balance so that you can't answer that question.
ENGenuity: What gets you up in the morning?
Maier: It changes. I'm enjoying the job I have here at Monash, running the school, making some changes, trying to make sure that the junior faculty here thrive within the tight finances that exist, and get the best support possible. Coming out of COVID, it's been a year now that everything has been opened, but Melbourne had one of the toughest lockdowns in the world. When I arrived here, some of my colleagues that lived north of the river hadn't physically seen their friends that live south of the river for more than a year. So, forming communities and making the school an engaging place again is what gets me up in the morning.