A bridge for science

How about chatting with the Vice-President of the German Research Foundation (DFG) about your plans for the future?

Receiving crucial information about tailor-made sponsorship opportunities over lunch, or discussing possible business ideas with senior executives during a coffee break? Opportunities of this kind are not unusual for Thilo Hoelscher. As a member of the German Academic International Network (GAIN), which he heard about through the DFG, the assistant professor in the Department of Radiology at the University of California in San Diego experienced all these things last fall.

Since 2003 the network has provided support to German researchers and scientists who live and work in the United States and Canada and kept them up-to-date on developments in Germany. More than 2,000 researchers like Hoelscher are GAIN members. The organization is backed not only by the DFG, but also by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). Once a year, a conference is held in the United States that is attended by some 250 scientists who live in North America and up to 100 guests from scientific organizations, universities and political institutions in Germany. Members also meet at regular local gatherings and congresses. GAIN even pays the traveling expenses for visits to employment fairs. A free newsletter provides the community with the latest news from Germany, Europe and North America, which includes job advertisements and current developments in the worlds of science and research. 

The GAIN website offers even more information: the “Wissenschaftler-Directory”, for example, is an online list of German researchers in the United States and Canada that can also be joined by scientists who live in Germany. Additionally, it includes scientists that have returned to Germany and wish to remain part of the network. The spectrum of disciplines is very broad and the members range from PhD students of physics at MIT, postdoc researchers in biochemistry at Caltech, and professors of economics at Berkeley to professors of German literature at the University of Toronto. The Internet portal also allows detailed searches for career information and contacts. “We want to enable a better flow of information across the Atlantic in both directions and to act as a bridge to our home,” says GAIN project leader Christoph Schwalb. Anyone who wants to return to Germany, for example, receives not only help, but also financial support. 

That’s what happened to 34-year-old engineer Dominik G. Rabus, who returned from Santa Cruz to Weissbach in Swabia, south Germany. “Thanks to a traveling expenses subsidy for the European Career Fair in Boston, I was able to travel from San Francisco to Boston and make the acquaintance of my current firm, Bürkert Fluid Control Systems.” A real success story: Rabus has been back in Germany with his wife and two kids since September 2007. However, like many of the returners that have remained GAIN members, Rabus maintains his overseas ties: since January he has been teaching as an adjunct professor at the University of California in Santa Cruz.

In addition to specialist information, GAIN considers it important to communicate the researchers’ interests in order to promote reforms in the German research system and pass on improvement proposals to the policymakers, says GAIN project leader Schwalb. That is a goal 29-year-old Katja Schmitz would also support: “I would like to have a say in the great European research apparatus, because I believe we will see a number of exciting developments in the near future.” The biochemist went to Harvard Medical School in Boston to do postdoc research into high-throughput techniques for analyzing natural substances. She organized a regular local meeting for GAIN members that gave her many advantages: “GAIN put me in touch with people that I would never have met otherwise,” she explains. Also, it had become clear to her that if you wanted to return to Germany, you had to start looking for a job in good time. She was successful: she has been living in Germany again since January and now works as the head of a research group at the Institute for Organic Chemistry at the Research Center Karlsruhe.

Returning to Germany is becoming increasingly attractive for many researchers. “Scientifically speaking, the United States is not the land of boundless opportunity. Many of the things that don’t work here can be implemented better in Germany,” says Hoelscher. The assistant professor has now decided to return to Germany. The specialist neurologist, whose main area of interest is diagnostic and therapeutic ultrasound of the human brain, has always kept open the option of going home, despite the fact that he has been highly successful since coming to San Diego six years ago. After participating in a scientific project as research scientist and co-investigator, he was relatively soon offered an assistant professorship. Nevertheless, as Hoelscher explains, “I was lucky to receive answers to all the questions about my personal return strategy within the framework of the GAIN meeting in San Francisco in the fall of 2007.” He says the meeting helped him prepare his projects for 2008: Hoelscher will be taking up a research professorship at the University of Regensburg to complete his postdoctoral work in neurology and neurosurgery. In addition, he will be transferring parts of his research projects from the United States to Germany: in spring, with the support of the German Research Foundation, he will already be starting a clinical study, which will be followed by others. He already has plans for clinical-research work and its integration into clinical activities.

The physician has meanwhile also convinced partners in American industry that Germany is an attractive business and research location: he will shortly be founding a company with a biotech firm from San Diego. The first patent application has already been submitted – which means both countries are benefiting from GAIN.