Swiss Science Prizes Marcel Benoist and Latsis go to pioneer in laser physics and innovative legal and medical scholar

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Physics professor Ursula Keller receives the Swiss Science Prize Marcel Benoist for her ground-breaking work in short-time laser physics. The Swiss Science Prize Latsis goes to the legal and medical scholar Kerstin NoŽlle Vokinger for her outstanding interdisciplinary research.

The Swiss Science Prize Marcel Benoist is considered by researchers to be the Swiss equivalent of the Nobel Prize, with prizewinners awarded CHF 250,000 for their achievements. This year the prize goes to Ursula Keller, Professor of Experimental Physics at the Institute for Quantum Electronics at ETH Zurich. She has frequently pushed the boundaries of ultrafast laser physics with both theoretical models and experimental results.

"It is a huge honour for me to be awarded the Marcel Benoist Prize," Ursula Keller announced. "It is recognition of the almost 30 years of applied and basic research at the ETH Zurich and the first science award I have received in Switzerland. I would like to thank my fantastic research group, all the postdocs, PhD students and external partners who have made this work possible."

Ever since the laser was invented, researchers have sought to use it to transform materials. However, this was not possible with continuous laser beams because they were too inaccurate and heated up the materials too much. The solution was finally found in the use of pulsed laser light; however, this involved a complicated technique. Professor Keller solved the problem by using semiconductors and in 1991 invented the so-called SESAM technology (Semiconductor Saturable Absorber Mirror). This made it possible to produce light pulses lasting around a femtosecond - a millionth part of a billionth of a second - using solid-state lasers. In this short time span the movements of atoms or the mechanisms of chemical reactions can be studied.

Today, the SESAM principle is used in many practical applications, including material cutting, optical communication, computers and smartphone manufacture, and also in medical technology, where, for example, lasers are used as scalpels in eye operations. Furthermore, the ultra-fast laser technology can be used to develop high-precision measuring instruments. Ursula Keller herself invented the world’s most precise clock, the attoclock, which can measure attoseconds, i.e. the billionth parts of a billionth of a second. The attoclock is so accurate that it can be used to measure the fundamental processes of quantum mechanics.

In her research activities in the fields of law, medicine and technology, Professor Vokinger has wide-ranging professional interaction and applies interdisciplinary methodological approaches that are currently unique in Switzerland. She combines traditional legal and medical analyses with empirical data evaluations and also draws on expertise in artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Kerstin NoŽlle Vokinger has thus developed a distinctive research profile within a very short time. The topics she deals with are of considerable relevance to science and society, such as the pricing of medicines for cancer treatment, personalised medicine and the regulation of innovative technologies; the issues that Professor Vokinger addresses are of relevance to the public authorities, international organisations, industry and to legislation in the fields of medicine and technology. Vokinger is delighted to have been awarded the Latsis Prize: "The prize is an unexpected and great honour for me and my research team. I am very grateful to the Latsis Foundation and the SNSF for this award. It motivates us in our efforts to develop solutions that improve society’s access to medicine and innovative technologies."