In brief

Zeitgest

Kyoto 2005: failed…

In 2005, greenhouse gas emissions reached record levels in countries bound by the Kyoto Protocol. Although a reduction had been observed between 1990 and 2005, the data released by the UnitedNations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in November 2007 show that renewed growth in the former Eastern bloc countries seems to have reversed the trend.

Three Western European countries are among those showing the highest increases: Spain (+53 %), Portugal (+43 %) and Ireland (+26 %). In all, 36 countries are bound by the Kyoto constraints and must reach the targets set by 2012.

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GMOs: the end of hunger?

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Monsanto and Syngenta have justslammed the door on the IAASTD (International Agriculture Assessmentof Science and Technologies for Development). Over the past four years, public, industrial and non-profit sectors have been represented on this committee, which seeks to determine how science and technology can help combat hunger worldwide.

No official reason for the disagreement has been given. However, in its 17 January edition,the magazine Nature published the comments of a spokesperson for CropLife, an association of agri-industrialists to which these two major companies belong. It seems that the IAASTD does not reflect sufficiently the industry’s position with regard to biotechnologies. As two multinationals thatspecialise in this sector, Monsanto and Syngenta want GMOs to be seen as cornerstones in the fight to reduce hunger worldwide, contrary to the wishes of the majority of the IASSTD’s 4 000 experts.

Widely condemned for seeking to exercise control over world food – presented by the company as its philanthropic contributionto humanity – Monsanto has single-handedly squandered much of the credibility of the agri-foodstuffs industry.

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The anti-flu umbrella

The H5N1 virus prefers conical α2.3 and α2.6 short receptors. This is why the H5N1 virus must undergo a mutation before it can attach itself specifically to our “umbrellas” – the long α2.6 receptors – and transmit the disease to humans. This discovery will make it possible to perfect the surveillance strategies for avian flu, as well as to open up new avenues for therapeutic research.


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Technological migration

According to the World Bank report Technology diffusion in the developing world, technological progress has reduced the proportion of people living in absolute poverty, from 29% in 1990 to 18% in 2004. But despite these optimistic figures, the developing countries still have a very low level of technology when compared with the Northern Hemisphere: the poor countries have just a quarter of the technologies commonly accessible in the rich countries.

This report also notes the low penetration of technology inside the developing countries. Innovations remain mostly limited to large towns, rarely penetrating outlying areas. While emerging countries such as China and India have many technology companies that are globally competitive, the private sector in these countries as a whole operates at just a fifth of the maximumproductivity level. The World Bank believes this is mainly due to the precarious development of basic infrastructures such as roads and the electricity grid, as well as problems linked to the organisation of educational systems.

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Marine health: an inventory

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The National Center for EcologicalAnalysis and Synthesis (USA) published in February a map of the world showing the impact of human activity on the oceans.

The picture is alarming. More than 40% of the marine territory is suffering serious negative effects, with the most seriously affected areas including the North Sea and South and East China Seas. The most intact are the vast expanses of ocean around the Poles and off the north coast of Australia.

Fishing, pollution, maritime transport and global warming are among the factors undermining the health of the seas. The atlas includes 17 maps indicating the damage caused by 17 different human activities. These data are also linked to 14 maps of marine ecosystems so as to quantify the vulnerability of these environments with regard to a given activity.


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Bone culture Researchers at Yale

Researchers at Yale University Schoolof Medicine are currently perfecting a revolutionary technique for the world of prosthetic surgery The technique would enable a badly fractured bone to repair itself and therefore avoid the problems linked to fitting a prosthesis. The principle consists of removing marrow from the broken bone and then stimulating the reconstitution of bone matter through anabolic hormone injections.

Initial tests on mice have proved convincing. Structurally and biologically normal, the new tissue also gives the bone better biomechanical properties than are obtained by prosthetic surgery. This is a promising technique for elderly people who are particularly prone to fractures and who often suffer complications after fitting a prosthesis.  

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Healing rubber

Engineers at the École Supérieure dePhysique et de Chimie Industrielles (ESPCI – FR) have developed a new rubber that is able to re-form almost immediately after being torn. Renewable and cheap, it is made of a mixture of vegetable oil and a urine-based compound. It is also biodegradable.

This revolutionary rubber is chemically distinctive. The polymer chains found in traditional rubber are formed as a result of three different types of bond – ionic, covalent and hydrogen. This new material has hydrogen bonds only that can re-form by applying simple pressure at ambient temperature. There is, however, one drawback: the absence of the two other bonds render it more fragile. This is why researchers at the ESPCI are working on ways of strengthening it before looking at opportunities for making it commercially available.


Antidepressants: the key to eternal youth?

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Could an antidepressant become the key to eternal youth? Researchers at the Cancer ResearchCenter in Seattle (USA) measured the effects of 88 000 chemical substances on the lifespan of roundworms. One of the effective substances showed similarities to a class of antidepressants that inhibits the action of serotonin. Subsequent tests concentrated on these medicines more specifically.

One of them, Mianserin, clearly stood out from the rest. Worms given this medicine saw their lifespan increase by 31% compared with the norm. The phenomenon is explained by the action of Mianserin on SER-3 and SER-4 receptors, both of which are involved in regulating hunger and satiation. Inhibiting these receptors is believed to provoke a false sensation of hunger. And given that previous studies show that hunger increases the lifespan of worms and certain mammals, scientists hope to use Mianserin as a cure for ageing. Tests on mice are still being carried out.

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EUROPEAN NEWS

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Eurobiodiversity

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Europeans love nature and maintain that they are ready to defend it. The Eurobarometer on European Attitudes to Biodiversity published at the end of 2007 reveals that for 93 % of the Union’s citizens the preservation of biodiversity is a moral obligation. Not surprising, given that 70 % of respondents are conscious of the immense role humans have played in the erosion of the plurality of our environment.

However, even if the first measures aimed at preserving biodiversity in Europe date back to the 1970s, only 20 % of citizens are aware of the existence of Natura 2000, which forms the cornerstone of European policy in this area. An information campaign to be launched this year, aimed at better mobilising Europeans to defend biodiversity, may fill some of these gaps in people’s awareness.


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Lead markets coming soon

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Speeding up the transfer of knowledge between public research and industry is a major imperative for the emergence of a knowledge economy in Europe. The fact is that the EU possesses enormous research potential which is little exploited by industry. The cause lies in the gulf separating academic life from the private sector. To bridge this gulf, the Commission has developed the concept of lead markets – key economic sectors where, with a little help and encouragement from public authorities, major industrial innovations can be made that will benefit civil society.

Online health, sustainable building, technical textiles, renewable energies, recycling and bioproducts, these six initial lead markets defined by the Commission in January 2008 all contain the promise of future benefits to civil society. Anticipating Community regulations on product markets, unblocking public investments for supporting the launch of innovations and improving the intellectual property rights system all remain very conceptual objectives that Member States, the EU and industry will be attempting to embrace.


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Two new research Agencies

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Since December 2007, two new bodies have been strengthening European research. The first, the European Research Council Executive Agency, will now take charge of the European Research Council (ERC) and will manage the €7 billion budget of the Ideas programme of the 7th Research Framework Programme (FP7), aimed at supporting fundamental research.

The second body, the Research Executive Agency, will administer the Marie Curie fellowships programme and Community research for the benefit of SMEs. With a budget of €6.5 billion, it will also manage certain aspects of the FP7 Space and Security themes, while providing evaluation and support services to the other management of projects.


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A new and powerful treatment!

Will gene therapy allow us to eradicate Duchenne myopathy? This genetic disease, which affects nearly one child in 3 500 at birth, is characterised by an inability of cells to synthesise dystrophin, an essential protein for muscle growth. A Franco-Italian research team has sought to correct this defect using genetic therapy with the exon jump.

This technique consists of removing in vitro the erroneous part of the gene coding for dystrophin and then reinjecting, through a lentivirus, the corrected cells into the patient’s body – all this with a view to obtaining the protein in a shorter functional form. Conclusive results were already obtained on tests with mice in 2004. More recently, researchers jump approach would appear to damaged. 


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7/7 vision

30 years of research eclipsed with the bat of an eyelid? A Franco-US study has just demonstrated a new aspect of the visual attention function. For the past three decades, this has generally been conceived as a single attentional beam which fixes on objects in order to permit cerebral processing. Recent research, however, bears out the contrary idea of several independent beams enabling us to fix our attention, simultaneously, on several objects.

A new method developed, among others, by researchers at the CNRS (FR) has made it possible to reconcile these two approaches.Researchers have used a psychometric function here, to another seven times a second. a single object.

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Asia online

The web is bringing European and Asian research worlds closer together. At the end of February 2008, the Commission and the Asian partners in the Trans-eurasiainformation network (TEIN2) agreed to continue developing this high-speed telecommunications network aimed at linking European and Asian scientific networks. An additional €18 million will be freed up to enable TEIN2 to operate up to 2011 whilst increasing its capacities and the number of countries connected.

Apart from the European Union, 10 Asian and Pacific countries are currently hooked up to the TEIN2. The network offers students Middle East.

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A clock in the skin

Persons suffering from sleeping disorders often need to spend several days under observation before obtaining a precise diagnosis of their pathologies. But for some, this restrictive stage will perhaps soon be a thing of the past thanks to the work of a team of researchers involved in the European EUCLOCK project. Although our main circadian clock (from the Latin circa diem meaning almost a day) lies in our hypothalamus, this in fact synchronises several other clocks which can be found in almost all our cells. This specific mechanism determines both our chronotype – that is our propensity to be early risers or late sleepers – and our circadian oscillator, the cellular rhythm which regulates our cognitive performance as well as our digestive, renal and cardiac functions.

Researchers in this project checked whether skin cells can serve to determine an individual’s biological clock. The first stage here was to define the circadian oscillators of a group of 28 volunteers, divided to the circadian rhythm.

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Sustainable Aviation

In February 2008 the Commission launched Clean Sky, a new Joint Technological Initiative (JTI) aimed at propelling Europe to the forefront of ecological aviation. Piloted by a public-private partnership of 86 organisations from 16 countries, this programme aims to make the European aeronautical sector more competitive, while improving its environmental performance. first phase of the programme, and this figure is constantly rising.

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Online genetic Catalogue

Genetic research is using the web as a weapon for increasing its effectiveness. With €12 million of financing from FP7, the new GEN2PHEN (Genotype-to-phenotypedatabases: a holistic solution) project will be setting out to build an online catalogue of relations between health and genetic variations. More and more advances have been made in the field in recent years, but there is still no universal system adapted to the new information technologies available to centralise this precious information.

Diabetes, cardiac disorders, obesity and auto-immune diseases are all widespread pathologies of genetic origin. The 17 partners in the GEN2PHEN project will therefore be putting together a database and search engine to allow medical genetics specialists to consult the latest works in their disciplines. The project also intends to link this portal to the other similar initiatives, few and far between, at international level. 

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Portrait of an electron

© Johan Mauritsson/Lund University © Johan Mauritsson/Lund University

It’s not easy filming an electron. Which is not surprising, given that it takes just 150 attoseconds (10-18 seconds) to move round an atom. A team of researchers from the engineering faculty of the University of Lund (SE) has nonetheless mastered this skill. Until now, electron movement was studied indirectly, in the absence of a flash fast enough to fix the image of this particle on film. The researchers used attosecond pulses, a totally new technology able to generate extremely brief laser ‘flashes’. Given that even the post-ionisation phase.

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The Arctic too is resisting

Despite their isolation, even Arctic birds present traces of resistance to drugs. During the Beringia 2005 polar exhibition, Swedish researchers took samples of Escherichia coli bacteria from the droppings of 97 birds in northern and north-eastern Siberia and in north Alaska. Eight out of these 97 samples presented traces of drug resistance. While samples from matter, etc.).


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Putting tuberculosis to bed?

The gene that keeps tuberculosis dormant has recently been identified by the European TB-VAC (Tuberculosis Vaccine Cluster) project. Around 90 % of people carrying tuberculosis are in fact affected by a latent variation of the sickness, and have just a 10 % likelihood of effectively contracting the disease. To pinpoint the gene responsible for this hibernation, researchers tuberculosis carriers.


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Whiskered Robots

Animals’ sense of touch is much more developed than that of man. The researchers in the new European BIOTACT (Biomimetictechnology for vibrissal active touch) project have clearly understood this. Their aim is to draw inspiration from two ”touch pros” – the sewer rat and the Etruscan shrew – in order to fit robots with a similar tactile mechanism. These animals’ whiskers give them a highly developed sense of touch. Thanks to a complex system of data loops linked to their moustaches, these rodents are able to determine the shape and position of items even in the most complete darkness. of limited visibility.

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Diabetes and Obesity

One of the genes that plays a major role in type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance has just been discovered by the European projects EXGENESIS (Health benefitsof exercise: identification of genesand signalling pathways involvedin effects of exercise on insulinresistance, obesity and the metabolicsyndrome) and EUGENE2 (Europeannetwork on functional genomics oftype 2 diabetes). By focusing their attention on DGK (Diacylglycerol kinase delta), an enzyme vital for maintaining cell sensitivity to insulin, researchers have discovered that the gene responsible for synthesising it was less active in the muscular tissue of diabetic or hyperglycaemic patients. Increasing the level of blood sugar reduced the expression of this gene. And as the DGK delta enzyme is also crucial for decomposing lipids, the slowing of the coding activity led to obesity, an aggravating factor in diabetes. On a positive note: by correcting blood sugar levels, with medication or simply physical exercise, it is possible to relaunch the activity of the gene and the production of DGK delta.

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Columbus attached to ISS

Columbushas finally arrived at its destination. Carried into space on 7 February in the hold of the Atlantis shuttle, the space advance post successfully docked four days later with the International Space Station (ISS). This European multidisciplinary laboratory will enable around 500 experiments a year to be carried out. The inside of the module will host experiments on human physiology and biology and on fluid sciences, whilst the in 2011.

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Errata

© Jacques  Guinberteau/Inra © Jacques Guinberteau/Inra

An error occurred in the illustrations in research*eu no. 55, on page 12. The photographs of Dominique Marbouty and Philippe Bourgeault were reversed. The online version of the article has already been corrected. The photograph of the Lophelia pertusa, published in February 2006 on page 7 of RTD info no. 48, was attributed to André Freiwald. In fact this is a photograph belonging to the team of Steve W. Ross, Professor at the Center for Marine Science at Maarvin Moss, Wilmington (USA). This photograph was taken in the Atlantic depths, off the North Carolina coast. We neglected to specify that the photo of Agaricus bisporus, published in n°54 of research*eu (Unearthing the secrets of Agaricus…, p.35) was provided by a team of researchers from Inra (FR) who study Agaricus in the coastal Atlantic region. The copyright belongs to Jaques Guinberteau/ Irna.

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SCIENCE AT YOUR FINGERTIPS

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Children, scientists, the same curiosity…

The portal looks like a comic strip. Welcomed by a cat, the surfer finds themselves in front of a miniature palace with several picture windows. A key opens the paths of knowledge. Hidden behind a slightly crazy-looking scientist are researchers who express their passion for research – but also of their childhood, their sports or their favourite animals. A library contains short texts on researcher vocations. they want to know.

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History and science

For all those who are interested in the past in order to better understand the present, there is an excellent site that allows you to dive into the past without getting lost in the maze of discoveries. Here you can find a host of precise links (medicine, engineering, philosophy of science) which refer surfers to libraries, archives, museums, companies, associations, publications and other sources scientific knowledge.

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The specificity of monkeys

Chimpanzé du Sanctuaire de Bakoumba (Gabon). © Cyril  Ruoso/BIOS Chimpanzee from the Bakoumba Sanctuary (Gabon). © Cyril Ruoso/BIOS

“If we just looked at its face, we could regard this animal equally as the first of the monkeys or the last of men, because with the exception of a soul, he lacks nothing of what we have.” The lines are by Buffon, written in the 18th century about the orang-utan. Since then, we have found out that the big monkeys (orang-utans, gorillas, chimpanzees) and the human line are some 7–10 million years apart. We also know that man is not the species from extinction. History, until 26 October 2008.

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Once upon a time there was DNA

Find out everything there is to know about DNA, based on 41 concepts explained clearly and with different “entry points” (definitions, animations, discussions, biographies, links). From the first proposition (“Children resemble their parents”) to the 41st (“DNA is only a starting point for understanding the human genome”) we move from Mendelian genetics to molecular cloning. These successive discoveries are analysed from their historical angle, reviewing the different experimental interpretations to which they have given rise. This site is indeed much more than an explanatory glossary. Rather it shows the interplay of hypotheses and facts over time. It also presents an experimental approach which takes account of the complexity of life. The scientific level is pitched at upper secondary school and first-year university students. the language of your choice.

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Virtual archaeology

Le circus maximus, à Rome, intégré dans son environnement. ©Ausonius This Circus Maximus in Rome, integrated into its original environment. ©Ausonius

What did the lighthouse of Alexandria look like at the time of the Ptolemies, the Circus Maximus in Rome, and the medieval cathedrals when they were painted inside? To bear out their hypotheses, researchers can call on the specialists of the PTF3D (three-dimension technology platform). One of these platforms, which goes under the name of Archéovision, is at the heart of the Institut Ausonius (CNRS/University of Bordeaux – FR), which specialises in archaeology and in the history of Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Its impressive technologies make it possible to recreate three-dimensional representations which bring back to life ruins or even monuments which are no longer standing. This platform is open to visitors. “This is a tool which is unique in Europe for discovering and explaining to an ever-wider public the work of archaeological missions. In particular Archéovision enables us to travel in time by visiting virtual models, in 3D and relief”, explains Pierre-Yves Saillant of the Institut Ausonius. Initiation workshops into archaeological techniques are also offered to schools. “These workshops encourage people to read and understand the history of the world surrounding us. on scientific data.”


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Physics at the bus stop

Why don’t you feel the wind when flying in a hot air balloon? Because the balloon is moving at the speed of the wind… © Božo Kos Why don’t you feel the wind when flying in a hot air balloon? Because the balloon is moving at the speed of the wind… © Božo Kos

When the moon rises, is it really larger than in the middle of the night? Why is the sky blue? Why does washing dry faster in a breeze? How does a microwave heat food? Some 50 questions and answers related to daily life, formulated very simply and accompanied by amusing and humorous drawings, were concocted for Physics Year (2005) by the Hisa experimentov Centre at Ljubljana (SL). Under the name “Science on the bus”, the operation consists of proposing a question (in the form of a text and a drawing) at the entrance of a mode of public transport, and finding the answer, presented in the same way, at the exit. The aim is “to explain simply and amusingly the basic principles of physics, and to excite the curiosity of the general public and of young people in particular.” The Hisa experimentov material is available in Slovenian and English. Partners have also translated it into other languages: into German by Science Netzwerk, which exhibited it in the Vienna metro, into Croat by Zlatni Rez, and it will shortly be put into Hebrew.


TEACHING CORNER

From cheese to the speed of light

© Qwentes – M.F.L. © Qwentes – M.F.L.

How does grated cheese help us measure the speed of light? The method, which is totally infallible, involves microwaves. Wi-Fi, GPS and motorway radar traps all use electromagnetic waves in a frequency band from 0.3–300 gigahertz (GHz). Domestic microwave ovens emit in this range, at 2.45 GHz, or around 2.45 billion electromagnetic oscillations (Hz) a second. This choice is dictated by the need to be close to the natural rotational frequencies of water molecules. These are polarised – i.e. they possess a positive and a negative charge at each end. Under the action of the oven’s electromagnetic field, the water molecules begin to spin round, hitting the neighbouring molecules and heating them. In this way the water absorbs the microwaves and converts their energy into thermal energy.

Away from its primary use, the microwave oven allows us to carry out a host of unusual experiments. Among them the grated cheese test allows us to estimate the speed of light. Lay out the cheese in a line on the turning plate of the oven. Raise the plate to stop it from rotating and prevent the equal distribution of the radiation. Start the oven at medium power, for around 15 seconds, and discover the result: the cheese appears as a succession of melted and raw portions, alternating every 10 centimetres or so. This is in fact the wave length of the oven!

How does this relate to the speed of light? It is the speed at which microwaves are propagated, as this speed is itself electromagnetic in nature. This can be estimated by multi plying the distance between two portions of melted cheese (approx. 0.12 metres) by the frequency of the waves, i.e. 2 450 000 000 Hz. The result, 294 000 000 metres/second, is astonishingly close to the actual speed of light 299 792 458 m/s – given the simplicity of the apparatus. Amusing and inoffensive, this experiment is also highly edible…


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YOUNG RESEARCHERS

Arno, physicist, 36

© Frank Luerweg/Uni Bonn © Frank Luerweg/Uni Bonn

It’s now more than 16 years since I started studying physics. Sixteen years of physics – that’s nearly half my life. Looked at that way, I ought to be starting to be bored. But in fact it’s exactly the opposite. Over the years, the words “I’m in physics” have constantly changed their meaning. Student, intern, doctoral student, post-doc, university lecturer – each stage comes with its own challenges, pleasures, responsibilities, openings and doubts. The basic motivation, however, has not changed: understanding in depth a part of the world that surrounds us is both very satisfying and reassuring. An academic career in fundamental research has always fascinated me for this reason. Also, since I was a child I have loved inventing, understanding and repairing technical and mechanical objects. What better area than physics for living out this passion? But not everything is rosy all the time. The recipe of success is made up of ingredients like talent, ambition and, in particular, hard work.

But you also need a lot of luck. Having the good fortune to choose a research topic people are interested in, being at the right place at the right time, knowing the right people, or the fact that a position has become vacant somewhere. The list contains a large number of unknowns. Of course this is true in every aspect of life. But the uncertainty weighs all the more heavily as the road is long and the number of emergency exits reduces with time. It may well be that one of the most important qualities for succeeding in today’s academic systems is optimism.

Recently, another motivation has become more important for me: being a team leader, it is my task and my privilege to look after a dozen students. Seeing their enthusiasm, their curiosity, their natural approach to research, how they grow, both as researchers and as people, through the challenges they take on, gives me immense pleasure. It is an enormous satisfaction to be able to play an active role in all this.

Would I make the same choices if I had my life over again? Yes – to be honest there was never really any question of abandoning my dream of becoming a researcher. Would I recommend attempting an academic career to my students? I would give them a long list of unknowns and tell them to think it through very carefully.

Arno Rauschenbeutel,
University of Mayence (DE)


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