NCCR MUST - 2010-2022

The scientific drivers of the NCCR MUST (Molecular Ultrafast Science and Technology) were to understand

  • How matter functions at the electronic, atomic, and molecular level,
  • How matter changes its structure during reaction and light interaction, and
  • How quanta of energy are transported on an atomic spatial and ultrafast timescale as short as attoseconds.

The interdisciplinary nature of this research – at the boundaries of physics, chemistry, material science, and biology – made it a crucial and exciting research area.


The NCCR MUST was funded by the SNSF and coordinated efforts and amplified synergies between different Swiss research groups. Generally, the NCCR MUST wanted to understand how matter changes its microscopic structure and charge distribution across a range of relevant length and timescales, and how this relates to function. To achieve these goals, NCCR MUST researchers have pioneered or substantially contributed to a number of novel ultrafast spectroscopic methodologies, and have developed, extended, and implemented a wide range of new computational methods. Both developments have been instrumental in investigating relevant systems and open scientific questions (NCCR_MUST_Scientific impact and international visibility.pdf).

  • NCCR MUST members have contributed to the understanding of structural dynamics in small molecules, solvents, proteins, nanoparticles, surfaces, and condensed matter systems.
  • In condensed matter systems, they used emerging spectroscopies, for instance, at X-ray free electron lasers, to reveal couplings between electrons, spins, and the underlying lattice, which is of utmost importance to understand the properties and functioning of strongly correlated materials.
  • NCCR MUST members have contributed to the first direct demonstration of nonlinear phonon coupling and showed how electron-phonon coupling can directly destroy the charge and orbital ordered ground state.
  • A concerted effort went into studying lattice dynamics in magnetic materials and several studies underlined the importance of structural dynamics in driving the transient increase of magnetic moments.
  • We can highlight the observation of the ultrafast Einstein-de-Hass effect that is associated with the demagnetization of an epitaxial iron film and the discovery of ultrafast magnetization dynamics with high-intensity THz excitation leading to large-scale magnetic dynamics in multiferroics and to a persistent switching of the magnetic order in multiferroic materials.
  • A substantial fraction of the NCCR MUST community has contributed to the fundamental understanding of charge, energy, and signal transfer on different length and timescales.

Structural changes beyond the lifetime of the NCCR MUST have been achieved with 2 Fast Labs (at University of Bern and EPFL), 14 new professors at the two leading houses (University of Bern and ETHZ, with partially joint appointment with PSI), knowhow transfer to SwissFEL with 8 former NCCR MUST PhD students or postdocs now working at PSI beamlines, 2 Computer Clusters (at EPFL and University of Basel), 3 start-up companies, new master level courses in ultrafast science related topics, a comprehensive graduate textbook in ultrafast lasers, a book describing the journey into time in powers of ten, a book with inspiring conversations with women professors, and 2 new networks, i.e. ETH Women Professors Forum, ETH WPF and the Swiss Society for Photon Science, SSPh.

After 12 years, the NCCR MUST has transformed the Swiss ultrafast science landscape to a well-connected Swiss-wide network with interdisciplinary collaborations, annual meetings, shared ultrafast laser technology platforms, and shared computer clusters. The outreach book A Journey into Time in Powers of Ten assisted NCCR MUST members to contribute to science exhibitions, to open days at partner institutions, public lectures, workshops, and round tables.

Our technology transfer yielded 3 CTI/Innosuisse projects; 5 direct industry involvements; and the establishment of 3 start-up companies. NCCR MUST PIs had started six companies based on NCCR MUST output, three of which, Plair, Aekip, and 8photonics, are currently active (December 2022).

We were able to obtain 2 additional EU COFUND Fellowship Programs with IFP-MUST (2011-2015) and FP-RESOMUS (2019-2023), thereby substantially increasing the number of postdocs.

In summary, through technology exchange, collaborative efforts, and the innovative theory developments, the NCCR MUST was able to contribute substantially to some of the grand challenges in ultrafast science.


However, NCCRs do not only excel in strategic research, but also support young talents and aim to actively promote women’s careers in science (statement SNSF).

While the output of the basic research of the NCCR MUST itself can be difficult to explain to the general public, concepts such as “ultrafast”, “laser”, “technology”, “light” were well suited for communication efforts, and were actually intriguing and visually entertaining such as laser swords, bending laser beams, colours, or communication with lasers.

An outstanding achievement of our educational outreach to the youngest generation and the general public is the book A Journey into Time in Powers of Ten by Anna Garry and Thomas Feurer, which was published in 2015. This book presents in an intuitive format the breadth of timescales relevant in nature and allows glimpses into the research of the NCCR MUST. The book is available in English, German and French and in form of posters, specifically for outreach activities and exhibitions. Building on the success of the book, in 2022 we published “10HOCH. Dimensionen zwischen Urknall und Verglühen. Eine Reise in die Zeit” together with the Gymnasium and FMS Lerbermatt, Köniz. In total several teachers and more than 300 high school students were involved; a book and films were created where high school students give us a glimpse into their “time”.

Further highlights were the repeated participation in Scientifica, the science exhibition of ETHZ and UZH, “Nacht der Forschung” (Bern) or “La Nuit de la Science” (Geneva) with talks, posters, and experimental shows.

We developed several educational tools, accessible for the general public but also to train undergraduate students, which emerged from an NCCR MUST-funded education competition for PhD students, postdocs, and PIs. Among others, these competitions yielded the Pendulum clock (ETHZ, now available from the University of Bern), the Stroboscope (University of Geneva) or the Orange Laser (ETHZ and University of Bern).    

To increase awareness for equal opportunities within the NCCR MUST network, we included a gender related presentation or tutorial to the program of all Annual Meetings. On top of this measure, we organized biannual Gender and Science Meetings – during the last eight years organized with the Cluster of Excellence RESOLV (Germany) – open to all NCCR MUST members to offer a unique platform to share experiences and developments, to learn about institutional programs, and to discuss and exchange ideas. In the March 2022 meeting, with the focus on culture change in academia, over 50 scientists participated with a balanced representation of gender and academic level. Through these dedicated topical meetings, the NCCR MUST was able to trigger a broad discussion throughout the entire network and beyond, and across all levels of hierarchy on equal opportunity and diversity.

We participated in the #NCCRWomen campaign, in which all active NCCRs contributed short videos of female scientists to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the women's right to vote in Switzerland published on YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter.

We initiated the OPN column: Reflections in Diversity and published the book “Inspiring Conversations with Women Professors: The Many Routes to Career Success” by Anna Garry. We established a peer mentoring program for first-year students at the ETHZ (in collaboration with the NCCR QSIT under the leadership of Anna Garry, a fellowship program for postdoc mothers at the Department of Physics of the ETHZ to support female postdocs who are simultaneously starting a family and pursuing a research career and the Inter-MUST Women Postdoc Award, in which awardees worked with two or more PIs in the network on a collaborative research program. One of the unique high-impact accomplishments of the NCCR MUST was the foundation of the ETH Women Professor Forum (ETH WPF) to support networking and strengthen female scientists on a higher hierarchy level with director Keller as the founding president (2012-2016). Initially founded within ETHZ, the ETH WPF network was expanded into the full ETH domain (ETHZ and EPFL). 

Scientific impact and international visibility - Major scientific contributions of the NCCR MUST

MUST for Molecular Ultrafast Science and Technology highlights the two pillars of the NCCR. Ultrafast technology at the forefront is often a prerequisite for breakthrough scientific advances and hence a fundamental pillar of the NCCR MUST. Over the past 12 years, NCCR MUST researchers have pioneered or substantially contributed to a variety of ultrafast technologies.

Scientific impact and international visibility (PDF)