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Discoverer of the Year Irene Battisti wants to see the invisible

Irene Battisti is the discoverer of the year 2019. The physicist won the C.J. Kok Public Award for her research into microscopy and superconductors.

Dr. Irene Battisti receives the award from rector magnificus Carel Stolker

Battisti first came  to Leiden University in 2013 on the Erasmus programme while doing her Masters in Physics at the University of Padua. Later, when she decided to pursue a PhD, Milan Allan’s group in Leiden seemed the obvious choice. 

Her initial plan was to create a new kind of microscope and use that to study superconductors. ‘We soon discovered that building a microscope would last the entire duration of my PhD, so we used another microscope to gather data while I was building my own microscope.’


Battisti was relatively late to start working with microscopy, only discovering the subject during the course of her master’s: ‘I remember the very first time I saw atoms, I was fascinated by it, it was so beautiful’, Battisti says,  ‘Quantum mechanics tells us you cannot really see an atom, but still we can see a representation of it. ’

The microscopes needed for superconductor research need to be extremely precise and also be able to work at very low temperatures, only a few degrees above absolute zero (-273 degrees Celsius). Using these microscopes, Battisti looked at materials like strontium iridate that are not quite superconductors, but do share a lot of properties. These models are easier to study than true superconductors. 

The goal is to understand how to make superconductors at high temperatures. In this case high is relative, these superconductors still operate at 150 degrees below freezing.

Hometown support

‘I was very surprised to hear that I had won the Discoverer of the year award, but also very pleased’ Battisti said. ‘I received a lot of support both from inside the university and outside. A Italian newspaper picked up on the competition and I think I received quite a few votes from my hometown in Italy.’

Since receiving her PhD in May 2019 , she moved on to a position at Nearfield Instruments in Rotterdam designing new microscopes. ‘I’m not doing pure research anymore. I might return to academia one day, but  for now I’m enjoying exploring this new world. It’s a different place with a different approach.’

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