The researchers headed by Sylvie Roke have used this method to prove, for example, that a suspension of colloidal glass particles – small spheres in a liquid – takes on a gel-like consistency if the molecular chains, which sit like hairs on the colloidal surface, arrange themselves alternately with molecules of the liquid. The molecular hairs thus influence the properties of the material, in this case the material to gel. The researchers also showed that the surface of soap sitting on small oil droplets in water is fundamentally different from soap sitting on the planar interface between bulk oil and bulk water. Moreover, the Max Planck scientists are continuously working on improving the sensitivity of their apparatus and integrating new optical effects.
In 2008, Sylvie Roke was awarded the Hertha Sponer Prize of the German Physical Society (DPG) for her development. And back in 2006, she received the Dutch Minerva Prijs, which is a biannual prize for a scientific paper. “This is something quite special for me,” says Roke with some pride. “Some researchers have been honored for their lifetime achievements with this award, and I received it after only a few publications.”
Sylvie Roke was already in a bit of a hurry at the very beginning of her life. Maybe in slightly too much of a hurry, because she was born three months premature, and initially had to fight for survival. Even later in life, she was more occupied than other children with growing up and getting stronger. Luckily she had her sister, who was one year older and served as a great example. “Being one year older, she was always taller and better than I was, but she took me along nevertheless. She learned how to play soccer, so I had to learn, too. When she wanted us to run through the forest, I ran with her. And when she wanted to climb trees, we climbed trees. Following her around was very important for my development. And it was fun.”
At some point, when she was 15 or 16, Sylvie Roke found her own way in life. And it was at this time that she also became interested in science. Mathematics appeared to her to be a very natural way of thinking, and she also found physics and chemistry easy. She began to read trade journals and enjoyed the idea of ending up doing something like that. So it was that she found her niche – in her family, as well, as both of her parents are in the legal profession. And her sister? “She became a psychiatrist and is responsible for the social side,” says Roke with a wink of an eye.
At the university in Utrecht, close to her little home town, she started to study chemistry. But when her questions as to why things happened got on the nerves of the university lecturers time and again during the lectures for her bachelor’s degree, one of them simply recommended that she switch to physics. So that is what she did. After another two and a half years, Roke not only completed her physics degree, but also her chemistry degree, both with highest honors. While working on her master’s thesis at the Institute for Atomic and Molecular Physics in Amsterdam, she became engrossed for the first time in the investigation of surfaces – a classic interface between physics and chemistry. When the research group moved to Leiden University and the chance was offered to enter the discipline of laser physics, Roke moved with them to write her doctoral thesis.
At first, this didn’t work out quite as planned – the experiments weren’t successful. Sylvie Roke started brooding and thought of three possible causes: “One: I am a lousy scientist; two: the whole idea is wrong; or three: the cause is the bad signal-to-noise ratio.” In order to find out whether the only really alarming hypothesis – the first one – was correct or not, she decided to simply start a new project. And she already had one in mind.