Eyes on Physics

Olof Karis
Olof Karis. Photo: Camilla Thulin

Even as a child he wondered why stones looked like they do and he wanted to be a geologist. As a teenager, he thought he would become a theoretical physicist. Since September 1, 2015, Olof Karis, or Charlie as he is called, has been the head of the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

One of the things which appealed to Charlie about becoming head of the Department of Physics in Uppsala is his interest in people and group processes. He sees this interest in other people as his greatest asset as head of department.

“The most pleasing thing about being head of department is that I get to share in the department’s human resources and its successes. It’s exciting to congratulate a colleague on a success one minute and the next minute coach somebody who has, for example, had a funding application rejected and talk about how we should proceed. If I succeed in getting that colleague to eventually feel that ‘It’s time to leave the rejection behind me and look forward to my next opportunity’ then I feel that I’ve fulfilled an important function.”

Charlie´s interest in science came early. As a child he wondered why stones looked like they did, likely because his father was a geologist. In high school, it was physics, but also partly chemistry, that attracted his interest.

Back then, media popularised quantum mechanics and the experiments being carried out at large scale facilities like CERN. Popular science texts on such topics were bestsellers. As a teenager, I thought advanced equations were cool and I wanted to become a theoretical physicist. I was probably not the only teenager who thought so at the time.”

Charlie remained interested in physics. After completing a second cycle programme in Physics and Chemistry at Uppsala University, the first master’s degree in Physics and Chemistry to be offered in Sweden, Charlie later gained a PhD. He thought then that the academic part of his life was over. He returned to the armed forces – to the place where he had completed his military service and also served as a company commander for a number of years. He went back there as a civilian and did purely technical research into mobile communications.

He noticed, however, that he found it difficult to stay away from academia and after two years he returned. What made him leave was the view which he had observed as the basic driving force and that differed from the academy.

“What I discovered when I worked outside academia was that financial considerations and ‘time-to-market’ were always decisive. ‘Good enough’ was the guiding principle outside academia. In academia, we always proceed from where we stand and we ask ourselves: ‘Where to now?’ The question is formulated based upon the knowledge we currently possess in some way. We always strive to go further. It never ends.”

He went back to Uppsala University as a researcher and since 2011 he is professor at the division for Molecular and Condensed Matter Physics. Since September 2015 he is head of the Department at 60 percent and is a researcher at 40 percent.

“My research deals with basic understanding of magnetic properties and how we can manipulate them. We want to understand why a particular material has certain special properties. When you think you understand how it’s all linked together, you can start changing the material to see if you can give it even better properties.”

He thinks that it's exciting that basic research results often can be converted into applications.

“It is a great field to work in. You can relatively quickly exploit the results from the scientific report in a product. There are many examples in this kind of research where basic discoveries have changed how, for example, we make magnetic sensors. The whole market changed in three years.”

A major reason that Charlie accepted the appointment as head of department was because he saw it as an exciting challenge to react to the changes taking place in our society that can have a major impact on the department. He also sees that internal changes will have a consequence for the department in the coming years.

“We’re facing a number of retirements of key personnel in the department. We will be required to make organizational changes and in some cases also identify new directions for our research. However, I have a great confidence for our co-workers and think that within five years, we will have developed into an even more successful physics department.”

Facts - Olof Karis

Outlook on life?
Nobody will solve your problems if you are not willing to deal with them yourself. The responsibility is yours. 

Age?
51. 

Where do you live?
In Vilan, a suburb of Uppsala.

Title?
Professor and head of department for the Department of Physics and Astronomy

Most proud of?
Being a happily married, positive, contented and cheerful person, 51 years old and already a grandfather.

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