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Interdisciplinarity starts with support and supervision

On 1st April 2008, the “Chemical Biology” graduate school at the University of Constance accepted its first 20 PhD candidates with an additional 20 entering the school in 2009. As new General Manager, the all-round talent Dr. Heike Brandstädter has taken the helm of the PhD Graduate School. Through her work at the crossroads of the humanities and natural sciences, her particular aim is to lessen the burden on young researchers and increase their chances of success on the job market.

Dr. Heike Brandstädter, General Manager of the Graduate School "Chemical Biology” at the University of Constance

Dr. Brandstädter, in establishing your position as General Manager, the Graduate School has taken a step towards professionalisation. What motivated this step? 

Administration is an all-round, full-time job: it comprises detailed work such as accounting and organisation, as well as more strategic work such as public image and concept design. Our office is something like the engine room - it makes sure that research is not impeded by day-to-day issues. All the issues that we don't manage to deal with fall directly at the door of the researchers, meaning that the scientists have to take time to do administrative tasks when they could be doing more useful things.

Does this position require certain prior knowledge and do you have to be able to think like a natural scientist as well as a humanist?

That is definitely a plus! My own educational background is very heterogeneous: I started with a chemical technical vocation, but then opted for a humanities-based university education. Throughout my working life, I have remained at the crossroads of humanities and natural sciences, whether in the field of press and public relations, or marketing or science management. In my current job, I find I have an ideal combination of all these subjects.

The Chemical Biology Graduate School opened its doors in April 2008. Can you give us a summary of events so far?

The Graduate School set very high goals - and it is thanks to this that it won the Excellence Initiative competition! These high goals now have to be achieved: We want to find the most talented PhD students, establish prestigious lecture series and offer ambitious courses. 2009 is an incredibly productive year in this regard - the year in which all these objectives can be met. We are now setting the standards for future "standard operation".

How is the funding from the Excellence Initiative being invested - in personnel or more in equipment?

The Graduate School awards scholarships to selected PhD students. This year, we will have about 20 scholarships, and in the coming years this number will double. The grant application took this annual growth rate into account. At the same time, the scholarships absorb a certain amount of the funding. With what remains we finance equipment and material needed for research projects. And, of course, lectures and courses with guest speakers, advanced training courses for students and, last but not least, public relations work are all integral parts of our budget.

How is the interdisciplinarity of biology, chemistry and computer sciences defined in the course programme at the Graduate School, i.e. what exactly are PhD students offered?

Interdisciplinarity starts with supervision and support: each PhD student has not just one supervisor, but a committee of three professors from at least two fields. A structured course programme represents a continuation of this interdisciplinarity: Each PhD student is offered courses that his/her background has thus far failed to give him/her - biology for the chemical scientists, chemistry for the biologists. Many of the courses focus on the fringes of biology, chemistry and computer sciences such as "Computational Life Science". We also offer courses in rhetoric and presenting as well as courses leading to management qualifications.

The “Chemical Biology” graduate school has accepted 20 new PhD candidates for the academic year 2009. © University of Constance/Graduate School

What percentage of PhD candidates are not German? Would you say that you have a multicultural group?

About 30 percent of the 40 PhD students at the Graduate School are from overseas. In comparison with the overall percentage of non-German students at German universities, this is a high proportion, and one that we are proud of. The countries of origin are very varied, but there is a trend that you could call "going west": We have students from Poland and Romania, the Ukraine, India, China and even Korea. The University of Constance can offer these PhD students numerous advisory services for individual issues. We greatly value the influx of fresh talent. At this point in time, 50 percent of our PhD students come from universities other than the University of Constance. We carry out intense promotion at other universities twice a year, for each application round.

Your aim is to intensify the connection between research and industry; what steps are being taken to facilitate an exchange between companies and industry partners with the graduate students?

The Graduate School already maintains numerous cooperations with biochemical and pharmaceutical companies. Such collaborations are incredibly diverse and comprise internships as well as the use of special instrumentation up to the involvement of experts in our course programme or the financing of scholarships. In this regard, maintaining and initiating contacts is an important task of the Graduate School. We offer an education that lays the groundwork for leading positions in research, research policy or applied research. Pertinent contacts are of major importance in this area. Our PhD students are given the opportunity to network in their research area and to develop their job prospects especially through the invitation of renowned researchers and through visits to our academic partners.

What exactly does the newly agreed cooperation with the Graduate School of Organic Chemistry and Chemical Biology at the University of Turku entail?

First and foremost, the cooperation offers intense scientific exchange between PhD students themselves, such as through joint participation at conferences, seminars or summer schools. The earlier this scientific exchange begins, the better; it is the only way to learn another method or approach. We are also promoting an exchange of professors to participate in teaching at partner universities, so that expensive equipment or a new method that only exists at one particular university can be accessed by the other university. Turku is our most recent cooperation. Our cooperations with institutions in Zurich, Stanford, Toronto, Kanpur, Nanyang or Harvard have similar goals.

With its "Fast Track" programme, the Graduate School offers PhD candidates the possibility of completing their studies including a Master's degree within four years. What are the entry requirements for the course?

The "Fast Track" is like a good pie: the base must be brilliant, then you can add the cream topping directly without needing another layer. Basically, students with excellent marks and additional qualifications in chemical biology can skip the master's thesis. The best prerequisites are obtained by studying chemistry or biology at the University of Constance, especially with our "Life Science" programme.

How will the Graduate School develop in the coming years? What are your goals?

This year, we are laying the foundations for the coming years. This means that we hope to accept excellent PhD students from excellent universities, and we want to find new partners - academic as well as industrial. In addition, we are in the process of setting up a major internal research association. The plans for the building that will house the latest project, a Centre of Chemical Biology, have already taken shape. And who knows: all this may serve to boost science management. Time will tell.

Further information:

Dr. Heike Brandstädter
General Manager
Konstanz Research School Chemical Biology
University of Constance , P.O. Box 630
D-78457 Konstanz

Tel: +49 7531 88-2237
Fax: +49 7531 88-5270
E-mail: heike.brandstaedter(at)uni-konstanz.de

Website address: https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de/en/article/news/interdisciplinarity-starts-with-support-and-supervision