Two heads are better than one. This phrase, though cliche, is a great way to describe what scientists find at Telluride Science. Throughout the week of workshops, hikes and community events, scientists engage in meaningful conversations with others and discover ways to work together in incredible new ways. The current collaboration between Sophie Marbach and Sylvie Roke is a perfect example of the magic of Telluride Science workshops.

As a theoretical physicist at New York University, Sophie Marbach is very interested in small-scale problems. Her early work focused on how to selectively target and sort specific molecules, but these days she researches how transport occurs at the molecular level.

Sylvie Roke, on the other hand, is an experimentalist and professor at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. While Roke primarily investigates aqueous systems and interfaces in a more biological context, she has also developed new optical technologies to investigate the molecular-level structure of systems.

The two first met at a Chemistry and Physics of Liquids Conference in 2019. They connected over their aligning ideas, quickly recognizing that each had a lot to learn from the other.

The following year, Roke invited Marbach to her Telluride Workshop on Interfacial Molecular and Electronic Structure and Dynamics. Although the workshop ended up being virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it still allowed the two to discuss further collaboration and how they could use Roke’s tools to track membrane fluctuation and transport.

“During the Telluride workshop, we decided to ramp things up,” Marbach recounted. “We've been meeting regularly ever since.”

Together, the pair have embarked on a new project investigating how phenomena occurring at extremely small scales can shape macroscopic behavior in fluidic systems. While they have different areas of expertise, their combined skills and equipment have allowed them to solve shared problems.

“The results that we’re getting are exciting, and it’s really nice that we’re getting closer to understanding how we can use our data to quantify aqueous systems,” Roke said.

Roke stressed the importance of the Telluride venue in allowing for this kind of exchange.

“The collegial atmosphere, the fantastic environment and the hikes that you do, it all brings about a dimension that makes it easy to envision new ways to collaborate,” Roke said. “Telluride Science collaborations are often very successful and, in my case, long-lasting.”

Another important aspect of the Telluride Science workshops is that they facilitate connections between women researchers across the world. Marbach emphasized the importance of feeling supported as a woman in science.

“Any woman can be a great researcher,” Marbach said. “She should feel no barrier against being a researcher in domains that are not traditionally very full of women.”

The discoveries that Marbach and Roke are finding together illustrate the importance of supporting women in science. The pair persevered and found ways to push their work forward, despite the last year’s challenges, and they hope that the experience of the pandemic may benefit research going forward.

“COVID-19 has shown us how important basic research is,” Marbach said. “Sometimes it's hard for theorists like me to show to the rest of the world their added value. We're actually essential.”

Fundamental research is what allowed the scientific community to rapidly develop treatments and preventative vaccines for COVID-19 proving that, as Marbach said, “Just because we haven't crossed something yet as an important problem in the world doesn’t mean that we shouldn't study it ahead of time to understand how it works.”

This is the fifth in a series of scientist profiles highlighting how Telluride Science scientists have used their particular expertise to address the COVID-19 pandemic or found new ways to collaborate and continue scientific research to address global challenges.

To learn more about Telluride Science, visit telluridescience.org. For more on Sophie, visit sophie.marbach.fr. For more on Sylvie, visit epfl.ch/labs/lbp.