Awards > Awardee Interviews > Interview

Interview: Peter Bruggeman

2019 Peter Mark Award Recipient
Interviewed by Dick Brundle, October 25, 2019

BRUNDLE:  My name is Dick Brundle and I’m here today representing the AVS. It is the 25th of October, and I’m here to interview Professor Peter Bruggeman, University of Minnesota, because he was this year’s recipient of the Peter Mark Award. I’m going to read out the citation, and fortunately it’s short, not like many of them.

“For studies that have provided fundamental insights into nonequilibrium atmospheric pressure discharges and the underlying mechanisms enabling biomedical applications.”

So, I’d like to start, well first of all just say “hello” so the transcriber will recognize your voice.  


BRUNDLE:  Thank you. I’d like to start at the beginning, that’s what I usually do, and get something about your background long before you ever got your Ph.D., and got into science. Because, I like to trace how that happened. So, tell me where you were born, and when, and a little bit maybe about your parents, their background, if you have any siblings, what they do, and we’ll go from there.

BRUGGEMAN:  Right. I’m originally from Belgium. I was born in a small village in the north of Belgium, the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium in 1982. My parents have no science background and I am the first one in my family going to University. I’ve done all my studies from bachelor degree to PhD at Gent University in Belgium before I explored other parts of the world.

BRUNDLE:  Your village was far from there?

BRUGGEMAN:  Not to U.S. standards. Maybe a thirty-minute drive. Well I mean you cross Belgium in a two-hour drive, so a thirty-minute drive is significant. It’s the closest major city to my village.

BRUNDLE:  Okay. And the village. You say a “village”. So, how many people?

BRUGGEMAN:  Oh, about a thousand people.

BRUNDLE:  And, what was your father’s job or your mother? What did they work at then?

BRUGGEMAN:  My father worked in a construction company. He was making conservatories and windows. Actually, that motivated me, at some point, to study civil engineering. But that didn’t really go like I wanted, and I quickly discovered a passion for physics.

BRUNDLE:  Okay. So, you were in, so was your high school in the village, your secondary education?

BRUGGEMAN:  No, my elementary school was in the village, and my secondary education was in a provincial town, called Eeklo, about ten kilometers south of the village.

BRUNDLE:  So, you had to go back and forth?

BRUGGEMAN:  Commuting by bike as often as I could.

BRUNDLE:  That’s what I did in England, too. And it’s surprising how many people I interview are very similar in the sense they come from a small, quite a small place, and the family does not have any background in science before, and, you know, they’re the first ones. It’s amazing. Probably more than, I would say more than seventy percent of the people I’ve interviewed for these awards are like that.

BRUGGEMAN:  Interesting.

BRUNDLE:  Okay. So, you’re in high school. I understand now how you got the engineering interest, but did you have any particular interest in physics and chemistry in high school, as opposed to other things? Anybody influenced you?

BRUGGEMAN:  Well, no, I think it’s a little bit more complex, to be honest. I studied Latin/Mathematics as a major in high school. So, classical languages together with math, not really focused on physics and chemistry. When I had to make the decision for my University studies, I actually even considered studying history.

BRUNDLE:  Interested in history?

BRUGGEMAN:  History. I made the decision not to study history because I noticed that many of my friends, or people I knew, who studied history ended up being librarians, and this is not really something I wanted to do.


BRUGGEMAN: I always have had an interest in physics and mathematics, and I have been really enjoying it and still do.

BRUNDLE:  So, when you went in for your undergraduate work you already had a pretty good idea what direction you were going?

BRUGGEMAN:  Well, I started engineering with the idea of studying civil engineering, and so I went to Ghent University. Ghent has a very good engineering school, and…

BRUNDLE:  And, Ghent used to run NATO conferences in science. I don’t know whether they still do, but I’ve been to several a long time back. And, nice town.

BRUGGEMAN:  Sorry, I am not aware of it. Indeed, I lived there for eight years and it’s really a very nice city. The nice thing about the engineering program in Ghent, at that time, was that you studied two-years general engineering before you had to make a decision about your subfield. So, you could kind of try out all the different areas. I ended up doing applied physics.

BRUNDLE:  When I went to university, in England, you had no choice. You picked what you were going to do and that’s the only thing you did. So, I picked chemistry, although I would have preferred physics, I guess. But I didn’t think my math was strong enough for that. And, but if I’d known what was available that’s probably not what I would have done. I actually got very interested in anthropology. But it was too late.

BRUGGEMAN:  Well, I have never been a fan of chemistry during my studies. But to be honest, my research involves more and more chemistry… you never know…  

BRUNDLE:  So, you got your bachelor’s degree and then you went to Eindhoven for your Ph.D.? No. You got it from Ghent, right?

BRUGGEMAN: Yes. I obtained my PhD in Ghent in the field of plasmas. I considered initially focusing my PhD on modeling because I was more theoretical inclined when I finished my master degree. Although, I quickly noticed that, progress in my subfield is often driven by experiments. For a complex field like low temperature plasmas, experiments are crucial in obtaining insights in mechanisms.

BRUNDLE:  Uhm-hmm. You’re saying the modeling is not far enough along to be fully predictive?

BRUGGEMAN:  Modeling has made tremendous progress in recent years but yes, often for application-relevant conditions, there is a need to combine modeling with experiments. I started with the idea to be strongly involved in modeling, but I gently moved into experimental work and now I’m almost completely focused on experiments.

BRUNDLE:  But, that’s good. It means you’re also very familiar with the modeling side.

BRUGGEMAN:  Yeah. Somewhat.

BRUNDLE:  Okay. So, once you got your Ph.D. almost immediately it looks as though you became assistant professor at Eindhoven.

BRUGGEMAN:  Well, before that I did a postdoc for about eight months in the UK.

BRUNDLE:  Okay. That’s what was missing in here. I was looking and said, “Never went anywhere for a postdoc?”

BRUGGEMAN: I did my postdoc at Loughborough University. At the time Michael Kong was there, who’s quite well known for plasma medicine. He is actually now also in the U.S. We performed studies on plasmas in liquids and I learned in his group about the emerging plasma medicine field at that time. I got more strongly involved it that field later.

BRUNDLE:  So, that’s where the influence first came, then, for the medical side?

BRUGGEMAN:  Yes.  There was a vacancy in Eindhoven at the time. I was even not really intending to apply, but Michael told me, “You should apply. Just try.” And, things happened. Plasma medicine was one of the areas of interest of the group I joined in Eindhoven.

BRUNDLE:  But you weren’t there very long? So, assuming there were no problems at Eindhoven, it sounds like then you were basically being recruited, or people were interested in getting you to move to the U.S.?

BRUGGEMAN:  Yes, after a few years in Eindhoven, I got approached by a few colleagues … there was an additional reason to move because my wife was living in England at that moment. And…

BRUNDLE:  She’s not English, though?

BRUGGEMAN: No. She is Spanish. We had been traveling between the UK and the Netherlands almost every weekend for about two years. So naturally we started asking ourselves: does my wife move to the Netherlands, do I move to England or, we both move somewhere else.” So…

BRUNDLE:  So – I see.

BRUGGEMAN: I had actually no intention to move to the U.S. But my colleagues convinced me to apply. I came over and I was very much impressed by the university. From one thing came another and we moved to the U.S.

BRUNDLE:  So, just step back a bit. Did you meet your wife in England, then? Is that why she was living there?

BRUGGEMAN:  She was working for a company, but she also attended similar conferences than me. The first time I met her was not in England, but I got to know her better when I was living in England. Yes.

BRUNDLE:  So, she attended the meetings? So, she’s in a similar field with you?


BRUNDLE:  I understand. So you arrived in the States then in 2009? It’s still not very long after your Ph.D., right?

BRUGGEMAN:  In 2013.

BRUNDLE:  You were at Ghent from 2009 until 2013 and then Minnesota. Well, I mean the plasma school there is very well known. I used to work for Applied Materials at one time and we had contracts to provide money at Minnesota in plasma, for modeling, mostly relating to particles inside a vacuum.


BRUNDLE:  Processing equipment. I haven’t worked for them for a long time, so I don’t know whether they still do that. But I was designated as the person who would go there and review the programs of the students that we were supporting, and several of them then came out and joined Applied Materials.

BRUGGEMAN:  There’s still a big emphasis on nanoparticles and nanomaterials. Steven Girschick is working on dusty plasmas and nanoparticle synthesis, and so is Uwe Kortshagen.

BRUNDLE:  Yeah. So, it’s not my field, even though the company I worked for it was an important area. I’m a surface scientist. I was going to say “pure and simple” originally, and then more interested in applications to all kinds of things, but particularly semiconductors and disk drive area. So, I notice here it’s all, or it seems to be, focusing on low-temperature plasmas, not plasmas in general?


BRUNDLE:  I can see why low temperature is good, but is that, is that something that’s across the board from engineering in places like Applied to medical now? The field has moved in that direction?


BRUNDLE:  In your applications?

BRUGGEMAN:  In Minnesota, in the ‘60s, the high-temperature and plasma lab was really focused on studying arc plasmas, thermal plasmas.

BRUNDLE:  Uhm-hmm.

BRUGGEMAN:  Minnesota is very well known in this area. There has been a trend in the last two decades, and I think this is probably based on the success of thermal plasmas in industry, that there is less research in thermal plasmas at universities, particularly in the US. There has been a gentle turn of the field moving more and more to low-temperature atmospheric pressure plasmas.

BRUNDLE:  Okay. And you being in the forefront of that, it looks, because you’ve organized meetings and you’ve helped road map? I didn’t realize there was a plasma road map. I remember the old semiconductor road map that I was involved in.

BRUGGEMAN:  Yes. So, The low temperature plasma roadmap is actually inspired on the semiconductor roadmap

BRUNDLE:  Which they’ve now abandoned, they don’t do it anymore now. I don’t know why. I think the last one was 2015. There’s a research conference mentioned here. I assume that’s already gone? That was this summer?

BRUGGEMAN: It was the Gordon Research Conference on Plasma Processing Science.

BRUNDLE:  And, you seem particularly interested in the diagnostics as well? Right?


BRUNDLE:  So you are you both sides? You’re interested in the actual processing and also the diagnostics?

BRUGGEMAN:  I try to combine both. I am always trying to understand why and how a plasma process works, from a more fundamental perspective. But all the processes we study are directly motivated by an application.

BRUNDLE:  Okay. So in the diagnostics, then, you were involved in developing things because there was not anything available that was suitable at that point, for the types of plasmas you’re using?

BRUGGEMAN:  Some of the diagnostics we use are quite standard, but I’m working at atmospheric pressure. A lot of the standard diagnostics actually get more complicated when you have a lot of collisions. And so, while many of the diagnostic techniques are standard, like laser induced fluorescence, the interpretation of the diagnostics is often quite different at these conditions than they would be in low pressure plasmas. So, the challenge is often the interpretation of the diagnostics data, in addition to developing new diagnostic methods.

BRUNDLE:  Okay. So, yes. You can get the data but the interpretation …

BRUGGEMAN:  And you often need some modeling.

BRUNDLE:  Yeah. Uhm-hmm. You’ve also got several other awards here, including, it says, 2016 U.S. Department of Energy Early Career Award. And, you’re young, but it doesn’t seem like you’re in your early career. (Laugh) You have done so much already. And, really heavily involved in all these international meetings and summer schools, and things like that. Are you really interested in teaching, as well?

BRUGGEMAN:  Yes. I really like to teach.

BRUNDLE:  So, what courses do you teach?

BRUGGEMAN:  At University of Minnesota I teach two courses. Actually, I’m teaching a third course for the first time next semester. One course is an undergraduate course, a measurement laboratory for mechanical engineering. So I am teaching basic measurement techniques to students. How do you perform accurate measurements? How do you interpret data?

BRUNDLE:  Difference between accuracy and precision, things like that?

BRUGGEMAN: Yeah. But also measurement techniques and how to interpret the data obtained considering the accuracy of the measurements. At the graduate level, I’m teaching a course on plasma engineering. And now, I’m setting up a new course on reactive flows, a broader course, serving a larger percentage of our graduate population, as we have also several colleagues involved in combustion and aerosol research.

BRUNDLE:  So, how big is the graduate program there?

BRUGGEMAN:  I think about 300 students.

BRUNDLE:  That’s big. Yeah.

BRUGGEMAN: I don’t have the exact numbers.

BRUNDLE:  And, do you live in Minneapolis or do you live across the river?

BRUGGEMAN: I just live north of the Twin Cities, in a city called Roseville. It’s about fifteen minutes’ drive from the university.

BRUNDLE:  Probably not so good in the winter? Uh huh. Right?

BRUGGEMAN:  It’s surprising. I mean, we talked about England. If you have one centimeter of snow in England…

BRUNDLE:  Oh, everything stops.

BRUGGEMAN:  Everything stops. This is not the case in Minnesota.


BRUGGEMAN:  So, snow doesn’t…

BRUNDLE:  But, it’s, it can be so cold. I think the coldest weather I’ve ever experienced was in Minnesota.

BRUGGEMAN:  Well, I don’t think it’s that bad. Coming back to when I had to make the decision to move to Minnesota, they invited me for the interview and it was probably the coldest day of the year. Somewhere in January. So, they were continuously telling me, “This is the coldest it gets.”

BRUNDLE:  Telling you that it’ll never be worse than this?

BRUGGEMAN: Yes. But, it’s extremely sunny. You know, and it’s dry.


BRUGGEMAN:  And so, when I came back to the Netherlands after my interview and I got out of the plane in Schiphol, it was maybe -5° C, humid, and it felt much colder in the Netherlands than in Minnesota. That experience might actually have contributed to our decision to move to Minnesota.

BRUNDLE:  Yeah. Well, I had a similar thing. I was offered a couple of choices when I knew I was going to leave the UK, and I had just spent a week in Rolla, Missouri in mid-summer, at a summer school. It was a hundred degrees, and a hundred percent humidity. (Laugh) And then I flew to California to be interviewed by IBM Research, and it was just so nice getting off the plane, to be dry, and warm, and sunny that I said  “This is the place for me.” But I thought I was only coming for a couple of years, and then I would return to England, and I never did. But, when you came did you have any idea you might go back fairly soon, or was it a commitment for the long haul?

BRUGGEMAN: I did have tenure in Eindhoven and I could have kept it as a backup to go back. But I really made the commitment and I gave up my tenure to come to the U.S.

BRUNDLE:  So, you didn’t keep it?

BRUGGEMAN:  I didn’t keep it. I could have taken a leave of absence. But, I felt like if you made the decision you need to commit. I committed. – However, I did have to promise my wife that we will not retire in the United States.

BRUNDLE:  Do it in Spain, instead? Or…

BRUGGEMAN:  Maybe. Yeah. (Laugh).

BRUNDLE:  No. That’s a long way off, for you anyway.


BRUNDLE:  Yes. Okay. So, moving away from science, do you have any children?

BRUGGEMAN:  Yes. I have one son.

BRUNDLE:  How old?

BRUGGEMAN:  He is seven now.

BRUNDLE:  Seven. So, he’s not into the difficult age yet? That will start in about four years.

BRUGGEMAN: So, people tell me.

BRUNDLE:  So, what are you interested in as a family? What hobbies? What do you like to do when you’re not working, if you’ve got any time? It seems like you’re working all the time.

BRUGGEMAN: Well, my son really likes fishing. My father likes fishing and my son picked it up from him. So when my son started to have interest, we started fishing. And, with all the lakes in Minnesota, it’s really a nice thing to do…

BRUNDLE:  If you can stand the mosquitoes. (Laugh)

BRUGGEMAN:  It’s not as bad as people seem to think.

BRUNDLE:  But, that’s also interesting. So then, All three major award winners, this time really love to fish.

BRUGGEMAN:  Oh, really?

BRUNDLE:  Yes. And, Dave Castner, I mean he has a big boat and he goes out on the sea, catches huge salmon. He grew up in the Seattle area and always fished with his grandfather when he was young.

BRUGGEMAN: We have family in Spain and in Belgium. So, we try to visit as many times as possible.

BRUNDLE:  Where in Spain? Which city?

BRUGGEMAN:  Zaragoza.

BRUNDLE:  Okay. I think we’ve covered a fair amount. I don’t know if you looked to the end of any of the previous interviews, but there’s always something I ask at the end. I’ve got some idea now how you got into this and the directions you went. So, I’d like to know what advice would you give to someone starting out right now? So, you know, someone maybe just finishing that Ph.D. in any of the areas that you were involved in, or attending AVS. What advice would you give them about their career?

BRUGGEMAN: I believe it’s getting more and more difficult for young people. It is more demanding, in several aspects. There is the pressure of publishing, and I think people tend to kind of go along with that, which is not always the best way to build up a solid career from the beginning. I think it’s great doing a postdoc. I do think that you need to take some time to go a little more in depth, work in another group, see how they do things differently. You can learn a lot from different management styles of senior researchers.  It allows you to develop your own management style. The most important is to think long-term. I mean, I’ve seen many people riding on the rails of…

BRUNDLE:  That’s sometimes hard in the U.S. (Laugh)

BRUGGEMAN: Yes. I mean it’s important to develop a research program that has a solid core that allows you to branch out to different applications, whatever is in fashion. It is really important to have this solid core.

BRUNDLE:  So, don’t just jump on the latest new thing and ride along with the crowd?

BRUGGEMAN:  Exactly. That does not always leading to the best outcomes in the long run. Often, once you realize there’s something happening, there are already many other people ahead of you.  Progress might be a little bit slower when you go in depth than if you continuously jump here and there. But I believe in the long run you will benefit from it.

BRUNDLE:  Okay. Well, I think that’s enough for the interview. We’ve been going nearly thirty minutes. Unless, there’s anything else you’d like to add at this point?

BRUGGEMAN:  Not really.

BRUNDLE:  Well, congratulations, again, and I hope we see you at other AVS meetings. Actually, that is something I didn’t ask, have you, do you come to AVS meetings on a regular basis?

BRUGGEMAN:  I do often attend the AVS, but unfortunately not every year.

BRUNDLE:  No. Well, you have all these other involvements.


BRUNDLE:  But anyway, so, now you’re here, and you’ve got this award, I encourage you to come back again.

BRUGGEMAN:  I will. I really enjoy this meeting.

BRUNDLE:  Thank you very much.

BRUGGEMAN:  Thank you.