Women in Research: Apply for That Dream Job, Says #LiNo17 Participant Katherine MacArthur

Interview with young scientist Katherine MacArthur

This interview is part of a series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog  that features young female scientists participating in the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, to increase the visibility of women in research (more information for and about women in science by “Women in Research” on Facebook and Twitter). Enjoy the interview with Katherine and get inspired.


Photo: Courtesy of Katherine MacArthur

Photo: Courtesy of Katherine MacArthur

Katherine MacArthur, 28, from the United Kingdom is a postdoctoral researcher at the Ernst Ruska Centre for Microscopy and Spectroscopy with Electrons, Forschungszentrum Juelich, Germany. In her research, she is trying to push the limits of characterising catalyst nanoparticles in the electron microscope. If we can understand their structure better then we can relate this back to their catalytic properties and try to make better catalysts. Can we really count the atoms and determine their atom type and how does that relate to the particles catalytic properties?


What inspired you to pursue a career in science/chemistry?

I have always been interested in understanding why things work the way they do. I’m very much an applied scientist/engineer. I like to be solving a real world problem. I remember doing a lot of miniature science/craft projects at home with my mother, for example, growing salt crystals, and clay modelling. I would often dismantle things to see how they were made. Physics and chemistry were always my favourite classes in school. I particular liked the chemistry practicals and mixing chemicals together for different results. I think a lot can be said for exceptional school teachers who make the subject engaging as starting point towards a specific career in that subject.

I fully credit my careers adviser at school for helping me choose which science degree to study. She was the first to suggest Materials Science to me as an option. In particular, the course at Oxford University which had a French language option looked the best option. This is because it combined as many of my A-level subjects as possible (at the time these were Maths, Chemistry, French, Product Design and Theatre Studies). Ok, it didn’t containing anything to with Theatre Studies, but all the other four subjects were covered. In an effort to find out more I booked onto a Materials Open Day in Oxford. A day which I thoroughly enjoyed. There was a vast array of practicals which demonstrated simple materials properties, all of which had a real connection to real world problems that thoroughly appealed to my practical mind set.


Who are your role models?

My mother has demonstrated how fruitful life can be juggling a career and family life, she is an inspiration. Otherwise I tend to get small inspirations from many of the people I interact with in my daily life. The variety reminds me that there is no specific route one should take to a permanent position in science. For that reason there is no one person who I can look at a say, ‘I wish I had their career’. Instead, I just look at what aspects of someone’s career I am inspired by.


How did you get to where you are in your career path?

The first hurdle in my scientific career came right at the beginning when I chose Materials Science as the degree I wanted to take but realised they recommend Physics A-level which I did not have. I was very fortunate that my school allowed me to take complete the Physics A-Level in one year by taking 1st year and 2nd year courses in parallel, adjusting the timetable completely so that I was able to manage my new set of courses. I got my offer from Corpus Christi College, Oxford and I got my 3 A’s in Physics, Chemistry and Maths. Later on my College Tutor who interviewed me said he is still yet to accept a candidate without Physics A-level, so it was clearly worth the extra effort. I found Oxford both enriching and immensely challenging at the same time. It is difficult to be in such an environment surrounded by some of the best minds without developing some sort of inferiority complex. You have to learn to re-evaluate what you classify as good results, and keep reminding yourself that just because the people you spend your day to day life with are immensely clever, does not diminish how clever you are. Unfortunately, I developed an illness known as IBS which is made considerably worse by stress, and I completed my final exams on quite a lot of painkillers. Now I manage the condition but it flares up occasionally, e.g. if I have a impending deadline that I’m not ready for.

[…] the idea that it is possible to image individual atoms was simply astounding […]

For my final year masters project I chose to specialise in high resolution electron microscopy, the idea that it is possible to image individual atoms was simply astounding. I spent many, many hours imaging gold nanoparticles after different heat treatments and was enjoying it so much I already knew that I wanted to do a PhD in Microscopy. Although I researched many options I actually ended up reapplying to Oxford. However I did change supervisors in order to work with Professor Peter Nellist (my college Tutor), Dr Sergio Lozano-Perez and Dr Dogan Ozkaya. The project was sponsored Johnson-Matthey and so had an industrial focus on the catalysts which I like as a link to real world applications. My PhD in Oxford was rather different to my undergraduate degree. Having three supervisors meant there were always at least 3 branches of the project I could work on at any one time. I thoroughly enjoyed this aspect particularly as I find it stops me getting too focused and stuck on any one avenue of research. Towards the end of my PhD (some time in my 3rd year) I began to feel a crisis of confidence, I still wanted to be a scientist but I began to feel like I wouldn’t be good enough to have an academic career. I had been jointly working with two or three other people and I began to worry that there wasn’t anything that I could point at as distinctly my contribution. It also didn’t help that I was still the most junior person in the research group as it consisted of me and two postdocs. They both made me feel like research required a real amount of bravado to convince people that your ideas are the best (at least to get successful funding applications). There was a hunger to survive in research which I saw in them that seemed essential for a career in scientific research and which I felt I lacked. I now believe differently, I think you can be a lot quieter and humbler and people will still notice if you have interesting and worthwhile results. After long discussions with all my supervisors (Dogan help in particular because he was able to explain to me why he left academia for industry) I decided to try out a postdocs position before I made my decision about staying in academia or not.

The coolest project is normally whatever I’m working on at the moment.

The place I’m at now (Forschungszentrum Juelich) was actually chosen slightly at random. I’ve heard one of my colleagues describe it as a Venn diagram approach. My husband and I both spoke to our supervisors and sent out a whole lot of emails to find out the availability of postdoc positions in research groups we liked. We each attached the others CV to our emails with a note asking if they knew of any groups in the area which would have a suitable position for our other half. From that I drew up a list of places I liked and he the places he liked. We ended up with a choice of two places in Germany, Juelich-Aachen or Stuttgart-Karlsruhe. Juelich has 5 top end electron microscopes where most places have only one, making it a fantastic hub of research in microscopy. Unfortunately they didn’t have any money to actually employ me but encouraged me to apply for a Helmholtz postdoctoral scholarship, making it the more risky option but would be fantastic if it worked out. Although it was rather nerve-racking at the time, I started in Juelich on a 3 months contract before I found out if my funding was successful or not. Thankfully it was and I’m now in my second year, thoroughly enjoying science again and having just come back from a 2 month research stay in Australia that I never thought I would do two years ago. I even have it in my sights to try and apply for a tenure track position next year.


What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

The coolest project is normally whatever I’m working on at the moment. I never have the inspiration to work on something unless I think it’s cool. That being said there is one project which has just been written up into a first paper that I think has real potential. Essentially, we were able to determine the 3D atomic structure of Pt nanoparticles from a single experimental image. Being able to determine a structure from one image (normally requiring 20 or more) means we can get the atomic structure of several particles in the time it took to get one, leading to higher throughput. It also means we are damaging the particles less under the electron beam the structures we get will be more accurate.

A simulation group in the University of Southampton has now done some modelling calculations on these structures. This is an important step for several reasons; firstly, it’s never been done before. Prior to this modelling has always been carried out on ‘perfect’ or ‘ideal’ structure with atomically perfect particles in their equilibrium shape. In reality catalyst particles are never going to have ‘perfect’ structures, there will always be kinetic effects in the synthesis or impurities which affect the shape and structure. Therefore to understand real catalysts we need to model real structures. As with most materials science challenges is often the deviations and defects from a perfect crystal structure which actually end of controlling overall materials properties. Therefore being able to characterise and model such defects is essential to understanding exactly what is happening down at the atomic level.


What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself/your work?

The first time I ever tuned a microscope by myself to resolve atomic columns. I was so excited I took a picture on my phone and sent it straight to my boyfriend. I think it might be a bit like when you’re groping and fumbling around to find your glasses. You finally find them and put them on and can suddenly see everything clearly again. It’s as sudden as this in the microscope and it’s beautiful. I love that moment every single time, when your visibility suddenly improves and you can actually see atoms. I still send my (now) husband a picture if I find a particle that is just too pretty and I have to share it with someone.


What is a “day in the life” of Katherine like?

Photo: Katherine MacArthur

Photo: Courtesy of Katherine MacArthur

I normally get into work 8-8:15. I pour myself a cup of peppermint tea and check my emails. In 90 percent of my days I will spend all day at my computer. Setting up simulations, analysing data taken on a microscope, writing software or reading/writing papers. I normally get a microscope session once every couple of weeks and it takes me that long to understand the images from a previous session. I have a quick packed lunch and then a group of us go out to play Boules if the weather is nice. When I am on the microscope I will work from 8 am through until I get too tired or until I’ve collected everything I think I can get that day. Therefore if the microscope is working well, I have been known stay well until the middle of the night, because the data coming out of the machine is so beautiful. Plus if you are collecting data after normal working hours, there’s normally no-one around to slam doors or run loud machines and carelessly mess up your data.


What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

I think the way that the scientific community is structured makes it very difficult to have long term goals. My contract only lasts for two more years and each funding application is typically a 3 year timescale. In that time you need to have real results to prove you’ve achieved something which was worth funding. Personally, things have been a little shaken up with the Brexit vote. My husband and I had planned to do 3-4 years in Germany before moving back to the UK. Now I think we are already seeing a drop off in scientific funding options and I think there will be fewer jobs available in research. Therefore we’ve had to come up with a new plan rather quickly. I have a plan to apply for a large 5 year funding grant. If I’m successful with this then my husband and I will be staying in Germany, if we’re not successful then we’ll be looking to move somewhere within the EU. Ideally, I would like to end up in a permanent position linked with a university where I’m also able to do some teaching. I really enjoy sharing my scientific knowledge with other people and really enjoyed my time spent tutoring at Oxford. However, I’m a long way off that just yet so it’s easier to think it short-term goals.


What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

When I’m not doing research, I’m normally cooking/baking. I normally cook a meal completely from scratch every night. With my IBS I have to avoid ready-made sauces and ready meals. This means I have learned how to make a lot of different things including: currys, pizza, sweet and sour sauce, and various pasta sauces all from scratch. My herb and spice rack is rather extensive for this reason. I find it helps me to relax and unwind from the day I’ve had. Some nights I just throw things into a pan for a quick stir-fry, but other nights (if I have time) I go for something much more complicated. I don’t always have time to cook something extravagant as I have German classes, Bible study and dancing most nights of the week.

I would recommend […] always applying for a position you like the look of even if you worry that you might not fulfill all the criteria.

Of those activities my main passion is the dancing. During my time in Oxford I learned to dance Latin, Ballroom, Salsa, Rock and Roll among others. Now I just limit myself to acrobatic rock and roll twice a week. There’s nothing quite like being thrown upside down to clear your head! Plus I learned during my time in Oxford where the motto is ‘work hard, play hard’ that after a mentally tiring day you sleep an awful lot better if your physically tired as well.


What advice do you have for other women interested in science/chemistry?

As corny as it sounds I would say believe in yourself or find someone who believes in you. Whenever I have a small crisis of confidence or worry that things aren’t going to come together in time, I have a wonderful husband who reminds me of all the things I have achieved and so why would this situation be any different. I would recommend thinking positively and always applying for a position you like the look of even if you worry that you might not fulfill all the criteria. In all my discussion on gender issues and why there aren’t enough women in high ranking positions, there was one statistic that stood out for me. It said that most men will normally apply for a job even if they only fulfill 60 percent of the criteria, whilst most women will wait until they fulfill 100 percent of the criteria before applying for a position. If this statistic is true there are lot of women out there who take themselves out of the running of top jobs by not even applying in the first place.


In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science/chemistry?

In the field of electron microscopy I think the biggest breakthroughs come through in instrumentation. For chemistry this has come in the form of new holders which allow the in-situ flow of gas or liquids around the sample whilst still being able to image with the electron beam. This is still an expanding area of research and currently has made a lot of pretty videos but is a lot harder to understand the exact processes going on. Getting real catalysts in under microscope in reactive conditions, I think will be essential to really understanding the catalytic process and how to improve it. I think I lot more can be done in terms of quantification. Can we measure the exact ratio of the gases going in and coming out (this is tricky as very small volumes are involved)? Can we track compositional changes with time and understand particle degradation processes? For Fuel-Cell catalysts there has been a lot of success in developing better catalysts than those commercially available, but the problem is over time the particles degrade and activity is lost. We need to understand and prevent these degradation mechanisms in order really achieve more efficient Fuel-Cells.


What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?

Personally I think it’s still more an issue of cultural expectations than anything else. I don’t think we’ll ever be close to reaching gender equality until it is just as socially acceptable for a man to change his surname after marriage as it is for a woman. Far too many people had an opinion on what I was going to do with my surname when I got married. This was an issue which was entirely mine as it was completely assumed that my husband (also a scientist) would keep his name exactly as it is. It may sound like a trivial thing, but I think about it: scientific achievement is measure by how many papers and citations you have. If you choose to modify your name you need to do it carefully so that all your papers can still be attributed to you. Otherwise you are losing out just because you changed your name.

I don’t think we’ll ever be close to reaching gender equality until it is just as socially acceptable for a man to change his surname after marriage as it is for a woman.

I think the ratio of female to male really drops of during the postdoctoral years. Spending your time on limited 1 or 2-year fixed termed contracts doesn’t really provide a great deal of stability financially. I think women worry about this more, especially if they’re looking to start a family. Also as I said above not enough women are applying for the top end positions, so they may be moving from postdoctoral positions to permanent positions later in their career. In Germany they try to actively combat this issue with positive discrimination. For example, they have a professorship funding option available only to women and some of their lower level funding specifies that at least 40 percent of the awards will be given to women. I still haven’t decided if I agree with this practice or not, but if it does succeed in encouraging more women to apply then it could be a good approach. However, it might leave some people believing they only got the position in order to ‘fill a quota’.

“Persistence” – #LiNo17 participant Karen Stroobants’ key to success

Interview with young scientist Karen Stroobants

This is the beginning of a new series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog  that will feature young female scientists participating in the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, to increase the visibility of women in research (more information for and about women in science by “Women in Research” on Facebook and Twitter). Enjoy the interview with Karen and get inspired.


Photo: Courtesy of Karen Stroobants

Photo: Courtesy of Karen Stroobants

Karen Stroobants, 29, from Belgium is a Postdoc at the University of Cambridge, UK and one of the young scientists that will participate in the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting dedicated to Chemistry. Karen’s current group has established that membrane proteins of mitochondria, the powerhouses of our cells, are likely to play a role in the pathways of neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. She is investigating the misfolding behaviour of such proteins, and the way the cell responds to it, with the goal to identify potential new targets for therapeutic purposes.


What inspired you to pursue a career in science/chemistry?

I always had an interest in science, and biology in particular as it was more accessible as a kid (I had a toy microscope and ‘devised’ a cardboard box to take ‘röntgen’ scans of my stuffed toys). I however only realised I would pursue a career in science when I had my first lessons in chemistry, in the third year of secondary school. Studying chemistry throughout high school was very playful and enjoyable for me, and I noticed it wasn’t for everyone. I helped out several classmates with revising before tests, and I felt I had identified a strength that could well be worth further pursuing. Four years later, I started my bachelor in chemistry with the same enthusiasm and I have never regretted that choice since.


Who are your role models?

One of the key moments in high school that without doubt has further supported my interest and enthusiasm in chemistry was the class that thought us about the discoveries of Marie Skłodowska-Curie. I have been intrigued by her life path and accomplishments from the first time I heard about her, and she remains my most important role model today.

I further have encountered amazing women along the way. Important role models to me are Professor Tatjana Parac-Vogt, my PhD supervisor, who is an amazing chemist and has shown me that there is no need to adapt to male behavior to pursue a career in science, Professor Dame Athene Donald, the Master of Churchill College (where I am a By-fellow), who is not only a brilliant physicist but also has a profound interest in science policy and Professor Dame Carol Robinson, who became the first female chemistry Professor both in Cambridge and Oxford, after having taken an eight year career break to take care of her children.


How did you get to where you are in your career path?

The key word in my career so far is ‘persistence’. I have always had goals in mind, and I have worked very hard to reach them. I knew that I wanted to go for a Master in chemistry from the third year of secondary school, that I wanted to do a PhD from the second year at university and that I wanted to do a post-doc in the lab of Professor Chris Dobson at the University of Cambridge from the third year of my PhD. Once my mind is set on something, I work towards that goal.

I have been very lucky to always receive the full support of my parents, who have financed my full education, from primary school all the way to university. When I decided to do a PhD, I immediately received support from Professor Tatjana Parac-Vogt, who also was the supervisor of my master thesis. Tanja encouraged me to write a proposal for the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO), and, with her help, I received a fellowship before even finishing my master. During the PhD, I collaborated with a group at ULB in Brussels, where I met a former post-doc of the Dobson group. She gave me the support I needed to grasp this potential opportunity. I sent at least five e-mails to Chris before I received an invitation for an interview in Cambridge. When I pointed this out to him later, his response was to the point: ‘Persistence is a good quality in a scientist.’ Fair enough :-).


What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

I would say it is my current one. Over the past seven years, I have worked in the fields of cardiovascular disease detection (during my Bachelor), artificial enzyme development (during my Master and PhD) and neurodegeneration (now, as a post-doc). The common denominator has been my expertise in spectroscopy and other biophysical techniques, whereas the topics and applications have spanned fundamental chemistry as well as the life sciences. My current project is on the role of mitochondria, mitochondrial proteins in particular in neurodegenerative diseases. One could say that I have moved away somewhat from the basic chemistry I studied towards biochemistry and the border with biology even. Maybe I have touched ground again with the science that had initially sparked my enthusiasm as a kid? My drive for this project surely further is related to the stories my mum used to bring home. She works with people with dementia; some of the situations she encounters are devastating. I aspire to contribute to the establishment of effective therapies for these conditions in some way.


Photo: Courtesy of Karen Stroobants

Photo: Courtesy of Karen Stroobants

When have you felt immense pride in yourself/your work?

There are two moments of extreme pride that I can point out without hesitation. The first one is my public PhD defence. This final presentation in Belgium goes hand in hand with a public event where family and friends are invited and it was one of the best days in my career so far. One of the reasons is without doubt the festive element to it, but, more importantly, it marks the successful finalisation of several years of, sometimes very exciting, sometimes quite frustrating, hard work.

The second moment was the day I was informed by the European Commission that I had successfully secured a Marie Skłodowska-Curie post-doctoral Fellowship. I had compiled my first application for this prestigious fellowship that is associated with the legacy of my ultimate role model, two years earlier, but had failed to secure it in this round. I tried again one year later, taking on board the feedback I received, and my persistence allowed me to reach another goal. The research proposal I had put forward to secure the grant has meanwhile brought me to Warsaw in Poland, the birthplace of Marie Skłodowska-Curie.


What is a “day in the life” of Karen like?

I try to be at the department around 8.30 (although I probably arrive at 9.00 as often), and usually know what to start on in the lab. At the moment I am working with S. cerevisiae or baker’s yeast cells, and their growth and needs in part define my schedule. Today I got in and immediately checked how they had been growing overnight. It was a good day, they had behaved as expected and I could start my experiment. I added a compound in their nutrient solution to initiate the production of a specific protein, and let them grow for another few hours. In the meantime, I prepared a discussion on model organisms in neurodegeneration for the day after, and skimmed through my e-mails. At this point, I was the one craving nutrients, so I texted my colleagues to go for lunch.

After lunch, my yeast cells were ready to be harvested, by spinning them down at a high speed. The procedure to do so, and collect them in batches relevant to my experiment, took me most of the afternoon. In between, I planned out the experimental work for the next day, and prepared the necessary solutions and yeast cell cultures to get going again in the morning. Before going home, I usually have another look at my inbox and take time to answer e-mails that I had just skimmed over earlier in the day. In the evening, I either spend most of my time in the kitchen, or go for a gym session or run along the river Cam (in which case my lovely housemate Lily Chan provides dinner). My runs are not entirely science free, as they usually allow my mind to drift and come up with new ideas, some better than others admittedly.


What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

While my current project has again sparked my enthusiasm for the science itself, and is at a stage where new ideas pop up during every run, I have for a while now played with the idea of leaving the path of an academic for a full-time career in science policy. Where I have in every previous step known well in advance what I wanted to do, this is probably the first time that I am not so sure…

As a scientist, my research has brought me to the study of our energy production pathways and the organelles related to it in the context of neurodegeneration. Would I be happy to further expand my knowledge in this direction, and push the border of our understanding through my own ideas? I certainly would, and I know I enjoy supervising students, editing articles, writing grant proposals and teaching as well.

As a science communicator, I feel the science community has a lot to learn in terms of effective communication, with policy makers, industry as well as the general public. Would I find as much satisfaction in taking up a role either as policy advisor, in a learned society, or supporting researchers in their communication strategy? I probably would, in fact there is only one way to find out…

And there are even more careers to consider. With the right balance between science and policy initiatives, I keep my options open for now. The future will tell.


What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

I have already mentioned my pleasure in cooking and exercising on week evenings. Whereas my runs often stimulate my brain to wonder about new ideas, cooking for me is the ultimate form of relaxation. While I work with my hands, my mind is completely distracted, or rather fully occupied with assessing the type of pasta to go with a specific sauce or the quality of the seasoning.

One evening a week, and part of my weekends, is devoted to extracurricular endeavours, mostly related to science communication and science policy. I am currently Head of workshops for the Cambridge University Science Policy Exchange initiative, an organization that aims to provide insight into the process of policy design and portray the communication difficulties commonly experienced during science-policy exchanges to fellow University staff. I further am involved in the Global Shapers Hub in Cambridge, the policy work group of the Marie Curie Alumni Association, and the policy challenges initiative of the Cambridgeshire County Council. These initiatives indeed take up some of the time that I could otherwise further spend on my science. I however hope that these efforts will be as valuable as they might contribute to re-installing the importance of evidence-advised policy in a world currently ruled by ‘alternative facts’.


Photo: Courtesy of Karen Stroobants

Photo: Courtesy of Karen Stroobants

What advice do you have for other women interested in science/chemistry?

My most important piece of advice to anyone pursuing a career in science would be: ‘Be persistent’. This probably is applicable much broader, for reaching life goals in general. I do believe this characteristic has brought me where I am now, and where I anticipated being a few years ago.

For women more specifically, I have two more pieces of advice. First, do not underestimate yourself. There are plenty of studies showing that while men tend to overestimate themselves, women tend to do the opposite. Just remembering this basic fact does encourage me to present myself more confidently and I am sure this has made the difference at a number of occasions.

Second, define your own work-life balance and communicate clearly about it to superiors. Scientists are in general very passionate about what they do, which can result in a seemingly endless enthusiasm to work long hours, weekends and bank holidays. If one enjoys this, that is perfectly fine, however, I felt very early in my career that I need time to go for a run, meet with a friend, go on a weekend away, all on a regular basis. In addition, I have committed to spend part of my time to science policy initiatives. Of course I have an occasional late night or weekend in the lab, but I make a point of taking very conscious decisions on how I want to spend my ‘out-of-office-hours’ time, as I realise how precious it is.


In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science/chemistry?

The hardest question last :-). I imagine I would answer this question differently on a day-to-day basis depending on what I just read, or what occupies me at the moment. I think very generally in science, we, the human race, have a number of huge issues to address, including growing inequality, climate change, and healthcare. I believe breakthroughs can be expected in the fields of renewable energy and antibiotic resistance fairly soon. The fight against inequality is a different matter. Social scientists are certainly delivering evidence for the expected success of a basic income for everyone, but I fear we will have to wait longer for the practical implementation of such solutions.

In my own field, I feel great progress is being made as an accumulation of a vast amount of ‘small steps’. The brain remains one of, if not the most complex organ to understand. I always feel entertained by this irony: ‘Will the human brain ever be able to fully understand its own complexity?’ Although I obviously cannot answer this question, I do feel we are answering one small question at a time, and continuously move closer to that anticipated understanding. Both in terms of fundamental processes, and disease mechanisms, great work is being done, and I expect this to lead to breakthroughs in the field within the next decade.


What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?

Although a lot of programs have been set up within institutions and universities to address the gender imbalance in academia specifically, I believe more general societal changes will have a larger impact. First, I believe most governments still underestimate the key role of teachers, from kinder garden to university, in shaping individuals and with it the next generation and its thinking. Good teachers, that share their interest in the world around them and are accessible for all children, are of vital importance to motivate youngsters to take up studies in the sciences. Female teachers, as role models, in addition can further stimulate girls in particular to see the feasibility of pursuing a STEM career.

Second, changes that contribute to a more gender balanced society more generally will result in an increased number of female scientists. The girl – boy mentality gets fed to our children from a very early age, with gender specific toys, activities and behaviour. I believe there are huge opportunities for behavioural scientists to address many of these issues. One example I immediately think of in later life is the issue of parental leave. It has been proven that allocating part of this leave to the male parent by default would have profound effects on the work-life balance of both parents in the long-term. Many more recommendations in this respect are out there already, waiting to be implemented.

Exploring the Connections Between Sports and Science with Kurt Wüthrich

When reading the biography of Nobel Laureate Kurt Wüthrich, it quickly becomes clear that he embodies the concept of a Renaissance man. Not only did he excel in academic work, winning the 2002 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his advancement of nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, but Wüthrich was also an avid sportsman.

As a young man attending the University of Basel, he worked towards degrees in both chemistry and sports — the latter requiring about 25 hours per week of intense physical exercise, as well as courses in human anatomy and physiology. Even though he chose science in the end, sports continued to play an important role in Wüthrich’s life. He enjoyed skiing, fishing, and even played in a competitive soccer league well beyond the age of 50.

Kurt Wüthrich speaking at #LiNo16

Kurt Wüthrich speaking at #LiNo16. Photo: Ch. Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Given his interdisciplinary background, it came as no surprise that much of his master class at the 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting focused on the science of sports. In fact, two young scientists who gave talks at the master class — Dominique Gisin and Bettina Heim — have been blessed with a similar combination of both mental and physical talents as Wüthrich himself.

Dominique Gisin, currently a Bachelor’s student in physics at ETH Zürich in Switzerland, spoke about the mechanics of alpine skiing and its impact on the human body. Gisin started her degree at the University of Basel but interrupted coursework to concentrate on skiing, making her Alpine Ski World Cup debut in 2005. Four years later, she got her first World Cup victory in women’s downhill skiing, and at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, nabbed a gold medal in the same event.

To start off her talk, she played a series of video clips depicting the many crashes and falls she has suffered throughout her storied career, as the audience winced. In an average year, about 35% of all alpine athletes are injured — Gisin herself has gone through knee surgery a whopping nine times as a result of injuries.

In terms of physics, the variables that matter when it comes to modeling the dynamics of a downhill skier are numerous: the mass of the athlete, her velocity, the radius of a turn, snow temperature, air temperature, course condition, the mechanical characteristics of the equipment, visibility, and the mental/physical state of the athlete. These factors need to be considered when thinking about how to lower the rate of injury for the sport.

For instance, a tighter course setting would help reduce the athlete’s velocity, which could make crashes and falls less dangerous. But as Gisin notes, such a change would also cause skiers to move closer to the nets and potentially get tangled up in them. Another idea that might be interesting to pursue is uniform “anti-aerodynamic” racing suits that reduce athletes’ velocity and provide increased protection. Also, as seen in other sports, alpine skiing could benefit from the development of better protection equipment such as helmets and back protectors.

Kurt Wüthrich and Bettina Heim at the Rolex Science Breakfast

Kurt Wüthrich and Bettina Heim at the Rolex Science Breakfast. Photo: Ch. Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Also representing ETH Zürich at the master class was Bettina Heim, a Master’s candidate in physics with a background in competitive figure skating. Her achievements in the sport include competing at two World Junior Championships, two World Championships, and becoming Swiss national champion in 2011. Only a short time after, Heim decided to hang up her skates and study physics full-time.

Her Bachelor’s studies culminated in a paper published by the prestigious journal Science in 2015, titled “Quantum versus classical annealing of Ising spin glasses.” It shows that evidence of quantum speed-up may depend on how the problem is described, as well as how the optimization routine is implemented. Today, Heim continues her research in the field of quantum computing, mostly in the realm of adiabatic quantum computing and quantum error correction, at ETH Zürich’s Institute of Theoretical Physics.

However, her focus during Wüthrich’s master class remained firmly in the world of sport and not quantum computers — in particular, she discussed the physics behind her specialty of figure skating. For instance, an athlete must gain a lot of speed going into a spin, and then one side of the body has to stop so the other can pass. This translates velocity into rotation, which results in the many types of spin moves performed by figure skaters.

As in downhill skiing, injuries remain prevalent in figure skating despite not being a contact sport. Common injuries for skaters include stress fractures, acute injuries involving tendons or ligaments, and back injuries. Heim noted that back injuries often originate from jump impacts (which can be hard on the spinal discs) and extreme positions that require flexibility (tough on muscles and ligaments).

As Wüthrich’s fascinating master class reiterated, the connections between sports and science go way beyond the physics of motion. Sometimes, an athlete and a scientist can be found within the same person.

Dan Shechtman inspires young scientists in Nepal

I, on the behalf of the Asian Science Camp Alumni Association, have hosted an event “Interactive Session with Nobel Laureate Prof.Dr. Dan Schechtman” in a collaboration with the International Quasi Crystal Conference and Embassy of Israel In Nepal on 19th September 2016, at the Hotel Soltee Crown Plaza, in Kathmandu, Nepal.


Kathmandu's Durbar Square with the magnificent Bodnath Stupa in its center (picture was taken before the horrible earthquake in 215 struck the city). Photo: iStock.com/fotoVoyager

Kathmandu’s Durbar Square with the magnificent Bodnath Stupa in its center (picture was taken before the horrible earthquake in April 2015 struck the city). Photo: iStock.com/fotoVoyager

The hall of Hotel Soltee Crowne Plaza was jammed on 19th September with researchers, young scientists, students of various fields, political leaders from leading parties, government representatives and policy makers to attend the talk of Prof. Dan Shechtman. He stood among a huge crowd of unknown faces, yet expressed himself with such an amiable manner. Only few people possess such a down to earth and charismatic personality like Prof. Dan Shechtman. No doubt, the Nobel Laureates’ story is a fascinating one: from his achievements and the hard work he has done to the roller coaster ride of his eventual success.  In addition, Shechtman also shared many of his ideas, gave us insights on how he thinks and much more. Only few people get the chance to meet such a great personality and the young researchers, I must say, are very lucky to get this once in a life time opportunity to meet Prof. Dan Shechtman.

Since Dan Shechtman is a professor of material sciences and a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, everyone expected him to talk about his scientific achievements and experiences. But out of the blue, he talked about another topic dear to his heart: the role of technological entrepreneurship for the development of a nation. The title of his speech was “Technological Entrepreneurship – A Key to World Peace and Prosperity”. He advocated the important role of techno-entrepreneurship in transforming developing countries like Nepal into efficient economies. He emphasized that developing entrepreneurial spirit and a well educated youth is paramount for the development of a country.


Nobel Laureate Dan Shechtman with attendees of his lecture. Photo: Asian Science Camp Alumni Association

Nobel Laureate Dan Shechtman with attendees of his lecture. Photo: Asian Science Camp Alumni Association

Professor Shechtman especially stressed the significance of good basic education for everyone. He listed good engineers, science education, proper government policy and anti-corruption measures as basic components that help empowering a country’s entrepreneurship. He also shared ideas and suggested some do’s and don’ts, e.g. regarding potential sources of investments and strategies for the startups. Shechtman then explained the situation in his home country Israel: “Israel is a small country with a small population and small markets. So the majority of our products are exports. If you produce products more efficiently, you can compete easily in foreign markets. When you come up with a new thing, it is innovation. When you turn your innovation into something marketable, that’s entrepreneurship.”

With his experiences at the Technion, Professor Shechtman showed the importance of science education for a nation. He further added: “Entrepreneurship does not come naturally to anyone. You have to teach it like you teach mathematics.” Shechtman illustrated his thoughts by bringing up relevant examples of the development of Israel, Taiwan and other comparable countries. Finally, the participants got a chance to ask their own question which was a dream coming true for everyone in attendance. Professor Shechtman’s speech was a real treat to all of us and many young Nepalese will take lots of inspiration from his speech.

Op-Ed: Science must be Brazil’s Bridge to the Future

The Nobel Prize is the highest scientific award since its creation in 1901 and its recipients must have attained life-long, ground-breaking, achievements in their respective area. To this rule there is no exception: Hard and continuous work is the key to success. But this is certainly not all, since, for somebody to perform at a Nobel-Prize winning level, there must be a given number of prerequisites to be fulfiled, some intellectual, others material. Here I would like to address exactly this issue: what are the prerequistes for high-level and -impact research at the “Nobel level”?

My personal interest in this question lies in the fact that I am Brazilian and I have always wondered why Brazil, or other developing countries for that matter, have not received (any) Nobel Prizes in sciences yet. This is a really complex question to answer and any attempts will be obviously partial, but I would like to give it a try. For this, let us consider the two kinds of prerequisites I mentioned in the particular context of Brazil, about which I can speak with more propriety.


Rio's newly finished Museu do Amanhã (Museum of Tomorrow) is certainly a right step in creating public awareness for science. Still, its construction relied heavily on private sponsors. Photo: iStock.com/rmnunes

Rio’s newly finished Museu do Amanhã (Museum of Tomorrow) is certainly a right step in creating public awareness for science. Still, its construction relied heavily on private sponsors. Photo: iStock.com/rmnunes

Asking my Brazilian PhD supervisor and some of his colleagues about what it takes to reach top-level research, the answer was unanimous: a School (yes, with capital ‘s’). Competent scientists are not spontaneously generated, but require good and close advising from senior researchers whose experience was also gained in a similar way, as well as an encouraging working environment, where new ideas can blossom. These are necessary conditions to create a School, i.e., provide solid education for the young students centered around the urging scientific questions of their time – but also with a look at the humanistic side of science by developing more critical citizens. This is a very slow and delicate project which requires a lot of personal involvement and dedication, as well as some basic infra-structure.


Nobel Laureate Abdus Salam in 1987. Photo: Molendijk, Bart / Anefo (CC BY-SA 3.0 NL).

Nobel Laureate Abdus Salam in 1987. Photo: Molendijk, Bart / Anefo (CC BY-SA 3.0 NL).

For the sake of concreteness, let us take the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy, which was founded in 1964 by the Pakistani Nobel Laureate Abdus Salam. Its mission was to foster and support science in the developing world and, for this, Salam and others worked in the direction of gathering top scientists to support and supervise young scientists from “third world” countries. They built effectively a School – from which my Brazilian advisor (J.A. Helayël-Neto) profited very much. This included not only technical knowledge, but also the general feeling of how to conduct a research group which benefits from diversity, thus creating a flourishing ambiance that enabled the then students to develop state-of-the-art research and gather the necessary experience to return to their home countries and found their own research groups, carrying the values passed by their mentors in Trieste (this is the case in our group at CBPF).

The human factor in creating a School is clearly very important and it is certainly a decisive aspect in the “production” of Nobel Prizes, but it is not the only one. Under-paid researchers in under-equipped institutions will very likely perform poorly. Governments are therefore also fundamental parts in the making of high-level research. That this is true can be seen by the amount of money invested by Germany in research and science (almost 15 billion euros in 2013 representing an increase of 70% with respect to 2000) and the number of research centers, e.g. Max Planck Institutes (more than 80 in various areas) [1] – no wonder they have more than a hundred Nobel Prizes! Similar situations are found in other scientifically leading countries, such as the USA, Austria, France and the UK, just to mention a few. How is this to be contrasted with Brazil?

It must be noted in the first place that science is a motor for societal and economic development. The industrial revolution, for example, was only possible through the development of the vapour motor by James Watt, which was clearly based on top knowledge of thermodynamics. The transistor and digital revolutions are similarly based on fundamental physics, e.g. quantum mechanics. The USA and western Europe are leading industrial powers since the early days of industrialization and the interplay between investments in science, research and education and the resulting (economical) development is very clear. Where do Brazil, or more generally Latin America, and Africa come into play? Well, they were mostly colonies since the XVI century and most of the capital available in Europe for the industrial revolution came directly or indirectly from the exploitation of mineral and human resources from their colonial possessions [2].

This was a huge off-set: Latin America and Africa were not colonies for population (occupation) like the USA or Canada, but exploitation colonies, so the colonial powers had absolutely no interest in developing the land in terms of education, infra-structure, let alone science. In this sense, the culture of education – yes, this is a culture – and science in general in Latin America is a very young and quite fragile one. Despite all the economical progress in the recent years, traditionally, Brazil (and I imagine that the situation is similar in other latin-american countries) does not have a solid and consistent approach to education at the governmental level. This can be easily seen by the continuous ups-and-downs from the budgets dedicated to education and culture (EC, for short), science, technology and innovation (STI), which are very often the first areas to suffer cuts in difficult times. To cite a concrete example, the Brazilian interim president has recently merged the STI Ministry with the Communication Ministry – a clear sign that STI are not being treated with due respect and priority.


Science is a motor of economical development but the future of itsf unding in Brazil looks rather bleak currently. Photo: iStock.com/rmnunes

Science is a motor of economical development but the future of its funding in Brazil looks rather bleak currently. Photo: iStock.com/Gervanio

In the last two decades Brazil experienced an increase in investments in STI, in particular in the 2000’s, whereby many universities and education centers were created in various locations throughout the country. This meant not only a larger coverage of the higher education landscape, but also a large number of newly created positions for professors and researchers. During those years the existing universities also received better funding and paychecks arrived on time. This is not to say that the situation was good, it was only comparatively better than in the previous years: basic education was still way behind international standards, the existing infrastructures were maintained, but hardly improved, etc. Compared to what was coming, these years would be remembered as almost perfect.

During her last electoral campaign, Dilma Roussef, who is now under investigation in a more than suspicious impeachment process – some would call it a coup d’état [3], promised that education and science would be her priorities: Her campaign slogan read “Brazil, an educating country” (Brasil, pátria educadora). However, after getting elected, the first area to be penalized with budget cuts was science and education: Some funding agencies had their budgets cut by more than 50%. Research institutes, like mine (CBPF), saw themselves forced to rationalize toillet paper, printers and essentially freeze any subsidy to funding events or buying new equipment or basic material. The same people who helped her get elected were the very first to suffer from the spontaneous and unannounced cuts. This was a low blow, but it could have been anticipated, since the true priorities had not actually changed.


On the last day of #LiNo16 the future of science and education was the topic of a panel discussion. Photo: Ch. Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings.

On the last day of #LiNo16 the future of science and education was the topic of a panel discussion. Photo: Ch. Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings.

During the 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting it was discussed the role of education in the making of a better future and fairer society. Though highly interesting, the debate did not come to new solutions, but merely reinforced the well-known formula: Science is key to a better world. To put it in the words of Nobel Laureat Brian Schmidt, it is necessary to have political and social stability, as well as a 20 year (planning) horizon, to reach visible improvement in a society. These points synthesize the essence of what is currently missing in the approach of governments in Latin America: A solid compromise to long-term investments in education. The usual 4-year horizon with which politicians work is the fruit of a not so naïve short-sightedness which results in a never ending cycle, where inequality and poverty are simply never consistently addressed. How can a School (of thought, research, education, etc) be established on such shifting grounds?

The role of science is to push human society forward and this is not only the task of lonely scientists, but rather a greater goal that has to be dilligently sought for by the people as a whole. Governments in developing countries need to break the secular traditions and start investing heavily in basic education and science – this is the only way to escape from poverty and underdevelopment.

Valuing the teachers is therefore a key ingredient in improving education: “teachers are the most important people in the world, pay them well!”, said Nobel Laureate Dan Schechtman at Lindau 2016.

Maybe, after some decades, if we follow the wise advise of Nobel Laureates – hopefully the politicians will pay attention – we will see that long-term investments and support indeed pay off and a Nobel Prize in sciences will no longer be out of reach for Latin America or Africa, thus crowning those who took the long and difficult path towards a better society.


My special thanks to Maria Elidaiana, José A. Helayël-Neto, Sebastião Alves, Yuri Müller and Célio Marques, all from the Brazilian Centre for Research in Physics (CBPF, Rio de Janeiro) for their collaboration in the writing of this piece.

[1] http://www.nature.com/news/germany-hits-science-high-1.13762

[2] “The open veins of Latin America”, Eduardo Galeano, Madrid 1980.

[3] The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/24/world/americas/brazil-dilma-rousseff-impeachment-petrobras.html?_r=0

Op-ed: What would the Brexit mean for Science and Research?

As the date of the referendum, June the 23rd, rapidly approaches, both the “Leave” and “Remain” campaigns are publishing increasingly aggressive headlines in an attempt to sway the 10% of voters who remain undecided about whether the United Kingdom should stay in or leave the European Union [1]. The Leave campaign is aiming to persuade voters that the UK needs to “regain control” and “end the supremacy of EU law” saying that a vote to leave “is much safer than giving Brussels more power and money every year.” [2]. They argue that the UK sends £350 million every week to the EU and that it would be better if this money was spent on the UK. The Remain campaign, on the other hand, argues that EU countries invest £66 million in the UK every day, that for every £1 the UK puts into the EU we get almost £10 back in the form of jobs, trade, investment and lower prices [3]. In fact, both campaigns have been confusing the general public with conflicting claims resulting from different assumptions made when analysing data, for example in the claims that “The EU costs the average UK household as much as £9,265 a year.” (Leave campaign) and that “.. all the trade, investment, jobs and lower prices that come from our economic partnership with Europe is worth £3,000 per year to every household.” (Remain campaign) [4]. It is no wonder that voters are unsure as to what the real effects of a Brexit would be. One of the many questions that remain is: What would happen to Science and Research, both in the UK and in Europe, as a result of a Brexit?


Photo: istock.com/miluxian

Photo: istock.com/miluxian

Unfortunately, the answer to this question is not known. This is, in a very large part, because there is no certainty as to what would happen to the UK budget upon leaving the EU and what the relationship of the UK with the EU will be [5]. Nor is it clear, how the UK would change its immigration policy and whether there would be exemptions for researchers, as was the case with the new immigration rules enacted on the 6th of April this year [6]. Much of the Leave campaign’s rhetoric has related to immigration [2] and therefore it is likely that if the UK was to vote to leave the EU, new immigration controls would be put into place. Exactly what these changes would be has not been outlined by the Leave campaign.

We do know a few things, however, thanks to the Science and Technology Committee’s report published in April 2016 [7], and the UNESCO science report “Towards 2030” published in November 2015 [8]. The latter concludes that a Brexit would have far-reaching consequences not only for British science, but also for European science. I will describe a few of the key points mentioned in these reports below.

The European Union is a very important centre of science worldwide, currently producing over one third of the world’s scientific output according to UNESCO data [8]. This can be partly attributed to the fact that 8% of the EU budget goes directly into Horizon 2020, the current EU framework programme for research and innovation, worth just under €80 billion from 2014 – 2020 [9]. This money is accessible to anyone within the EU, from students to established professors. Through Horizon 2020, individual researchers and groups in the UK can collaborate with researchers in over 170 countries worldwide [9], fuelling high-quality collaborative research [10]. However, this money may not become entirely inaccessible to the UK if it is no longer an EU member state, as there are several countries which currently are eligible to receive funding through Horizon 2020 as Associated Countries. If this were to become the case, it is probable that the level of influence the UK would be allowed to maintain regarding science policy decision making would decline [7] as well as the funding available to the UK [8], despite it still being expected to make a significant financial contribution to the EU.

Within the scientific community, the message is clear. In a recent poll of scientists conducted by the journal Nature, of the respondents who intended to vote in the referendum, 80%  said that they would vote to remain in the EU, and 78% said that a Brexit would harm UK science (while 9% said that it would benefit) [11]. Additionally, a group of 13 Nobel laureates recently wrote an open letter to the Telegraph newspaper, stating their support for the Remain campaign, as they believe that leaving the EU poses a “key risk” to UK science [12]. They argue that “Science thrives on permeability of ideas and people, and flourishes in environments that pool intelligence, minimise barriers, and are open to free exchange and collaboration. The EU provides such an environment and scientists value it highly.” [13].

Regardless of the decision made on June the 23rd, it is likely that the UK will have lost some of its welcoming appeal to international researchers as a result of the anti-EU and anti-immigrant rhetoric that has been filling many of headlines over the past months. The very uncertainty of what would happen if the UK were to leave the EU is likely to be damaging to the UK economy, meaning that any estimates of savings made by leaving are likely to be inaccurate. There is no precedent for what would happen if a country was to leave the EU, therefore it is difficult to predict the relationship that the EU would have with the UK. However it is likely that, in order to dissuade other countries from pulling out, the conditions offered would be less than favourable. Whether this would be damaging to science and research remains to be seen.




[1] Financial Times Brexit Poll Tracker: [https://ig.ft.com/sites/brexit-polling/]: [June 19, 2016]


[2] The Campaign – Vote Leave: [http://www.voteleavetakecontrol.org/campaign]: [June 16, 2016]


[3] Britain Stronger In Europe: [http://www.strongerin.co.uk]: [June 16, 2016]


[4] The UK in a changing Europe: [http://ukandeu.ac.uk/]: [June 16, 2016]


[5] Leave/Remain: The facts behind the claims: [http://ukandeu.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Leave-Remain-the-facts-behind-the-claims.pdf]: [June 16, 2016]


[6] Statement of Intent: changes to tier 1, tier 2 and tier 5 of the points based system; overseas domestic workers; and visitors: [https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/117953/tiers125-pbs-overseas-soi.pdf]: [June 19, 2016]


[7] Relationship between EU membership and UK science inquiry: [http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/lords-select/science-and-technology-committee/inquiries/parliament-2015/eu-relationship-and-science/]: [June 15, 2016]


[8] UNESCO Science report: [http://en.unesco.org/unesco_science_report]: [June 15, 2016]


[9] What is Horizon 2020?: [https://ec.europa.eu/programmes/horizon2020/en/what-horizon-2020]: [June 15, 2016]


[10] Could a ‘Brexit’ impact UK research partnerships?: [http://www.natureindex.com/news-blog/could-a-brexit-impact-uk–research-partnerships]: [June 16, 2016]


[11] Scientists say ‘no’ to UK exit from Europe in Nature poll: [http://www.nature.com/news/scientists-say-no-to-uk-exit-from-europe-in-nature-poll-1.19636]: [June 19, 2016]


[12] Nobel prize winners warn leaving EU poses ‘risk’ to science: [http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-36505736] [June 15, 2016]


[13] 13 Nobel laureates urge Britain to stay in European Union: [http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2016/06/10/13-nobel-laureates-urge-britain-to-stay-in-european-union/]: [June 19, 2016]


Science in Ancient Egypt & Today: Connecting Eras

Thoth, the ibis-headed god of science & wisdom in the ancient Egyptian pantheon. Photo: iStock.com/Kevin Rygh Creative Arts & Design

Thoth, the ibis-headed god of science & wisdom in the ancient Egyptian pantheon. Photo: iStock.com/Kevin Rygh Creative Arts & Design

Science is the seed to plant civilizations and to write history. This is exactly what the Ancient Egyptians realized 5,000 years ago in order to build their own civilization. Realizing the importance of science, Ancient Egyptians believed there is a god of science called T-hoth. Thoth’s body had human form but his head was the one of an ibis. His feminine counterpart was called Seshat and his wife was Ma’at. To show the importance of science in this bygone era and to show how strongly the Ancient Egyptians believed in the interconnection between different scientific fields with focus on specific disciplines and inventions, we will sail along the banks of the River Nile discovering parts of Ancient Egyptian history and how science has affected it.

The god Ra was considered the god of all gods and the second one to rule the world in Ancient Egypt. Surprisingly, Ra was the god of the sun! The sun for Ancient Egyptians was the symbol of power and life and the god of the sun was considered the king of the world. Thoth, the god of science, was the secretary and counselor of the god “Ra” due to the importance of science in this era. Not only that, but Thoth also married Ra’s daughter Ma’at.

Thoth became credited by the Ancient Egyptians as the god of wisdom, magic, the inventor of writing, the development of science and the judgment of the dead. Without his words, the Egyptians believed, the gods would not exist. His power was unlimited in the underworld and rivalled that of Ra sometimes. In the Coptic calendar nowadays, the first month is named after Thoth and known as Tout. It lies between 11 September and 10 October of the Gregorian calendar. Interestingly, Ma’at was the representative of moral and physical law. Some scholars considered her as the most important goddess of Ancient Egypt. While Ancient Egypt is sometimes rather associated with mummies and pyramids, a great number of ancient Egyptian inventions are still being used in our daily lives. Let’s focus on eight of the most important fields for us nowadays.


  • Paper and writing: Ancient Egyptians were among the first civilizations to make widespread use of the invention of writing and to keeping records of events. The earliest form of writing in Egypt was in the form of the hieroglyphics language, which consisted simply of drawings portraying a story. Papyrus was the first form of durable sheets of paper to write on. The material was named “papyrus” as it was made from the papyrus plant. To complete the writing process, one of the inventions in Egypt was, surprisingly, black ink. They were very talented at creating not only black ink, but many multi-colored types of ink and dye. The brilliant colors can still be seen today, thousands of years later.
  • Time: The Ancient Egyptian calendar was originally based on the cycle of the star Sirius, effectively applying astronomy principles to develop an accurate calendar divided into 12 months, 365 days and 24-hour units. We still use their calendar model in our tracking of the days today. They were one of the first to divide days into equal parts through the use of timekeeping devices like sundials, shadow clocks and obelisks with evidences for even water clocks. Generally, the passing of the day was determined by the position of the sun, and the passing of the night was determined by the rise and fall of the stars.
  • Construction: The Ancient Egyptians are known for their massive constructions and outstanding architecture such as the Great Pyramid of Giza, which is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The ramp and the lever were two of the most famous construction inventions they developed, and the principles that guided them are still widely used in construction today.
  • Ships and Navigation: Trade was an important part of ancient cultures, so having working ships was extremely important. The ancient Egyptians employed knowledge of the science of aerodynamics in their ship construction processes to create ships that were able to catch the wind and push vessels through water. They also developed the concept of using rope trusses strengthening the beams of their ships. They were also the first ones to use stem-mounted rudders on their ships. At first, they built small boats out of papyrus reed but eventually they began building larger ships from cedar wood.


Papyrus reeds on the banks of the mighty river Nile. Photo: iStock.com/© JoLin

Papyrus reeds on the banks of the mighty river Nile. Photo: iStock.com/© JoLin

  • Medicine: Many of their most famous inventions were based upon the scientific principles the Ancient Egyptians discovered. They had a variety of medical techniques and cures for both humans and animals, along with a vast knowledge of anatomy, as they practiced mummification and preservation of the dead. One of the earliest accounts of medical texts originated in ancient Egypt: It described and analyzed the brain, providing the earliest insight into neuroscience.
  • Cosmetics: Many people are not aware that toothpaste was actually an invention of Ancient Egyptians. As their bread had so much grit and sand in it, they experienced problems with their teeth. They invented the toothbrush and toothpaste in order to care for their teeth and keep them clean of grit and sand. The first toothpaste was made of a wide variety of ingredients, some included eggshells, ashes and ground-up ox hooves. Not only that, but they also invented breath mints to cover bad breath. The mints were made of myrhh, frankincense and cinnamon that were boiled in honey and shaped into small bite-sized pellets.
  • Make-up: Make-up originated with ancient Egyptians, where men and women both used to put it on. While the make-up was used primarily for cosmetic purposes and as a fashion statement, it had another advantage as well, in that it protected their skin from the sun. Perhaps the makeup that they are most popular for was the dark kohl that they put around their eyes. Kohl was made from soot and other minerals and is the concept from which modern eyeliner originated.
  • Mathematics: The great pyramids that the ancient Egyptians built required extensive knowledge of mathematics, especially of geometry. Math and numbers were used to record business transactions and the Ancient Egyptians even developed a decimal system. All their numbers were factors of 10, such as 1, 10, 100 and so on. Therefore, in order to denote 4 units, they would write the number “1” four times. The beauty of their development in mathematical science is especially noticeable in one of their monuments that is still awe-inspiring until this very day – The Temple of Abu Simbel in Aswan, Southern Egypt. The sun becomes perpendicular on the face of the statue of King Ramses II (one of the historical Ancient Egyptian kings) inside the temple only twice a year; on October 22 and February 22. Surprisingly, these two days turned to be the king’s birthday and his coronation day respectively. The Sun first enters from the front side of the temple to a distance of 200 meters reaching the Holy of Holies, which includes a statue of Ramses II, surrounded by statues of two sun gods; Ra-Hor and Amun-Ra and the Sun then stays perpendicular on the King’s face for 20 minutes. Interestingly, there’s one statue in the temple that the sun never touches: The statue of the god Ptah, who was considered the god of darkness. This is called the solar phenomenon in Abu Simbel temple.



The temple of Abu Simbel not only impresses through its appearance but also through its mathematical intricacies. Photo: iStock.com/Waupee

The list of wondrous achievements continues, some even speculate that the Ancient Egyptians already possessed some knowledge of electrical phenomena. Lightning and interaction with electric fish was recorded within an Ancient Egyptian text referring to “high poles covered with copper plates” that some believe to be an early reference to electric principles. Inspired by the solar phenomenon and the power of the sun, combined with mathematics and the ancient trials to discover electricity, my research work is dedicated to solar energy and its conversion to electricity. In an attempt to refocus onto the importance of the sun as a clean and everlasting source of energy in order to satisfy one of the basic needs of modern life – generating electricity – my research is based on converting solar energy to electricity or what is called the “photovoltaic effect”. In my research, I work on fabricating solar cells based on thin film absorbers that have the potential of achieving higher efficiencies at lower costs. As Ancient Egyptians were talented in using chemicals for mummification, I am using some chemical compounds based on Copper, Indium, Gallium and Selenium (CIGSe) to fabricate thin film solar cell absorbers that are characterized with a high absorption coefficient leading to high efficiencies of conversion. These absorbers are hundred times thinner semiconductors compared to Silicon wafers (current state-of-the-art technology) with lower energy needs and simpler preparation methods. Solar cells based on these absorbers with other high band gap absorber materials that I invented consisting of Copper, Silicon and Sulfur (CSiS) could be able to form a multi-junction solar cell breaking current records of efficiencies especially if equipped with a solar tracking system.

The Lindau Meetings present themselves at the German Embassy, Washington, D.C.

On occasion of the AAAS 2016 annual meeting, the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings and the Heidelberg Laureate Forum were invited to present their commitment to scientific exchange at the German Embassy in Washington, D.C.

On 10 February, one day before the start of the AAAS annual meeting, German Ambassador to the United States Peter Wittig invited the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings to take part in a luncheon at the Embassy. Several Nobel Laureates and former participants of the Lindau Meetings took part in a vivid discussion raising topics from science careers to gender issues in research. The event was moderated by Cathleen Fisher, President of the American Friends of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. In her speech, Countess Bettina Bernadotte af Wisborg, President of the Lindau Council, expressed her gratitude towards the attending Nobel Laureates, young scientists and supporters of the meetings.

Front row: Countess Bettina Bernadotte af Wisborg (in blue), Nobel Laureate Wally Gilbert, German Ambassador Peter Wittig, alumna Julia Nepper, Nobel Laureates Eric Maskin, Peter Agre & Ferid Murad. Photo: Germany.info (German Embassy to the United States).

Front row: Countess Bettina Bernadotte af Wisborg (in blue), Nobel Laureate Wally Gilbert, German Ambassador Peter Wittig, alumna Julia Nepper, Nobel Laureates Eric Maskin, Peter Agre & Ferid Murad. Photo: Germany.info (German Embassy to the United States).

As part of the programme of the AAAS annual meeting 2016 the German Embassy additionally hosted the ‘Meet with Nobel Laureates’ event together with the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings and the Heidelberg Laureate Forum and presented the photo exhibitions ‘NOBELS’ and ‘Masters of Abstraction’, two portrait series by German photographer Peter Badge. The reception was accompanied by a panel discussion featuring Turing Award Winner Vinton Cerf and Nobel Laureate in Physics William Phillipps who were joined by alumni Yeka Aponte (Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings) and Kristina Mallory (Heidelberg Laureate Forum). Robin Mishra, Head of Science at the German Embassy was the moderator. In summary, this was an excellent event to set the mood for a week full of scientific exchange at the 2016 AAAS annual meeting.

The overarching theme of this year’s AAAS meeting was ‘Global Science Engagement’, an issue perfectly aligned with the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings’ ‘Mission Education’. Among the topics discussed in the meeting sessions were science in Africa, science communication and initiatives to raise interest for the natural sciences in primary schools. “Being part of the AAAS experience is a great opportunity for us. Whenever so many great scientific minds from different generations, cultures and disciplines come together, the Lindau Meetings feel right at home” Countess Bettina said.





Many attendees of the AAAS 2016 annual meeting showed great interest in the booth jointly organised by the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings and the Heidelberg Laureate Forum. During the week there was plenty of opportunity to inform people about the upcoming 66th Lindau Meeting, different outreach projects or the global academic partner network.

It was especially heartwarming to see so many Lindau participants from former years in attendance at the AAAS meeting. This shows the longevity of the bonds forged at the Lindau Meetings and that many of the young scientists who participate can look forward to a great career in science and research.

Science Migration: A Little Bavarian with Pharaonic Looks

Egyptian-born Lindau alumna Ghada Bassioni started her education in Germany. In an elementary school in Dortmund, North Rhine-Westphalia to be precise. She then returned to Egypt where she continued school and later studied chemistry at Cairo’s Ain Shams University. Being emotionally attached to both countries and cultures – calling herself a ‘little Bavarian with pharaonic looks’ – she was happy to return to Germany to finish her Master’s and PhD degrees at the Technical University Munich. Today, Mrs. Bassioni is Associate Professor and Head of the Chemistry Department at Ain Shams University. Having always been an an activist for issues such as science communication, women in research and science in the developing world Mrs. Bassioni became a member of the Global Young Academy to help establish a network of likeminded researchers around the world. Her inspiring story of migration came full circle in 2015 when she had the chance to organise a science day for elementary pupils at her very first school back in Dortmund, Germany.

Engaging children with passion for science and fostering their curiosity is crucial at an early age. Photo: Ghada Bassioni

Engaging children with passion for science and fostering their curiosity is crucial at an early age. Photo: Ghada Bassioni

35 years had passed, and yet it was like yesterday. With the help of one of my German friends, I was able to get in contact with the school’s administration. Today the school is called ‘Libellenschule’ (‘Firefly School’). The correspondence revealed that more than 95% of the current pupils’ intake of this school was foreigners. Although North Rhine-Westphalia is basically industrial with a lot of workers from different countries, I remember that during our times, we had a fair balance of around 50% of Germans to foreigners. This fact even encouraged me further to offer the “science day” activity for pupils of the 4th grade (about 10 year old children). It was in a way a ‘comeback’ to show these pupils that “Here at your school this is where my career has started” as an inspiration for them to continue on their own studies. I believe that this will motivate them further to work harder at school and to hopefully go into science, to believe in themselves and their capabilities. Seeing an Egyptian professor speaking the language would also add to the acceptance and tolerance of foreign pupils at school.

When I entered the school I had mixed feelings…the school had a new building. It changed a lot over the years, it became more colourful and more children’s friendly. I actually liked the new look and imagined my childhood in these facilities. I was well received from the school administration and was allowed to look into their archives. Excited and still not realizing where I am, I saw the yearbook of 1980/1981. My teachers! A list of my class mates! All hand written in the beautiful “Schreibschrift”(German longhand script). I believe that the child in me came out by expressing every single excitement I felt looking into these files and the school. It awakened in me beautiful feelings that cannot be described on paper. One teacher, the youngest back in 1980, was still active at school in her final year before retirement. I jumped to say Hello to her. What an unforgettable moment!

Dr. Bassioni taking a young girl on a journey to the secretive world of the microcosm. Photo: Ghada Bassioni

Dr. Bassioni taking a young girl on a journey to the secretive world of the microcosm. Photo: Ghada Bassioni

About 20 pupils of the 4th grade attended the activity. During the preparation phase curious pupils helped me put on the microscope and different samples on the demonstration table. I could already feel their interest to learn more. I started to introduce myself and where I come from showing a map of Egypt. A cartoon described that Egypt had desert with a lot of sand, sea water that is salty and the River Nile with fresh water. The introduction included some broad definitions relating that landscape to chemistry.

The ‘science day’ consisted of three main activities: 1. Solubility and Crystallization; 2. Microscopic Investigation; 3. Toxicity in the three aggregation states: gas, liquid and solid. I had brought some samples of sand, quartz and glass and correlated that to crystallization phenomena on one hand and samples of salt and the relation to water salinity on the other. The pupils were allowed to see the samples under the microscope. They answered many simple scientific questions on the basis of a logical approach in a dynamic and very interactive lecture. The term “toxic” was discussed in relation to whether all substances can be toxic at some point. An example of a toxic gas was “Radon” as a main cause for the curse of the pharaoh. It was believed in Ancient Egypt that whoever opened the tombs of the Pharaoh was cursed and had to die. Strangely people who had actually tried got mysterious symptoms like hallucinations and eventually died in the end. Knowing that a scientific explanation gives answers to open questions makes science particularly interesting and useful to mankind. That topic crowned the day and was a clear highlight for further discussions in the school break afterwards.


The mask of pharaoh Tutankhamun. The opening of his tomb and the mysterious deaths of archaeologists afterwards spread the story of the pharaoh’s curse in the west. Photo: assalve/iStockphoto.com

I do believe that this kind of activity showers the children with other aspects of life. Children are the best learners and their fascination towards all that is new to them should be used. For them, these simple experiments were like magic, the unknown that needed to be discovered. This can start in a very early age by visiting museums like the natural science museum or concepts like the “Deutsches Museum” in Munich, where children can experience hands-on activities. The image of the crazy professor in the chemistry lab who is preparing the syrup of death can soon vanish once these children understand what the real science is about, how beneficial it is and how much value it is actually adding to society.

The Global Young Academy of which I am an Executive Committee member has realized the importance of this kind of activity and has dedicated a special program, the so-called Young Scientist Ambassador Program. Within that program school visits like this one can be funded. It is particularly encouraging to involve professors from developed countries to lecture in a developing country and vice versa. Intercultural and interdisciplinary approaches are a successful trend for dialogue in the scientific community. This concept has been long adapted by the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings at which I was invited twice in 2012 and 2014. I learnt how important it is to transfer knowledge on all levels, whether scientific or cultural. Understanding the human being regardless of the background starts with understanding a common basis: we all live on mother earth and shall try to understand it scientifically. Raising awareness and transfer scientific knowledge will eventually save us all.

Premiere: Exhibiting at the AAAS 2016 Annual Meeting

For the first time, the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings will be among the exhibitors at the AAAS 2016 Annual Meeting that will take place from 11 to 15 February in Washington, D.C. Together with the Heidelberg Laureate Forum (supported by the Klaus Tschira Stiftung), the Lindau Meetings present themselves as a forum for intergenerational dialogue to an audience of American and international members of the scientific community.

We cordially invite attendees of the AAAS meeting to visit us at booth No. 1829. Here, young scientists will receive information on how to participate in the Lindau Meetings and the Heidelberg Laureate Forum. Representatives of universities and other science and research institutions may learn more on the global academic partner network. For potential supporters, there is detailed information on funding opportunities.

See you all in Washington, D.C.! Photo: David Byron Keener

See you all in Washington, D.C.! Photo: David Byron Keener

A very special invitation by the German Embassy

Attendees of the AAAS 2016 Annual Meeting are also invited to the following event:

“Meet with Nobel Laureates”

Wednesday, 10 February 2016, 5:30–8:00 p.m.

Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany

4645 Reservoir Road NW

Washington, D.C. 20007

The reason why Nobel Laureates convene at Lindau every year and laureates of the Fields Medal, the ACM A.M. Turing Award, and the Abel Prize come together at Heidelberg annually is essentially the same: to meet the next generation of leading scientists from all over the world. Both meetings foster the exchange among scientists of different generations, cultures, and disciplines. The German Embassy, together with the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings and the Heidelberg Laureate Forum, invites attendees of the AAAS 2016 Annual Meeting to meet some of the laureates who regularly participate in these meetings. Among them will be Günter Blobel (Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1999), William Phillips (shared Nobel Prize in Physics 1997) and Vinton Cerf (ACM A.M. Turing Award 2004). In addition, several young scientist alumni of the Lindau Meetings will also be in attendance. The evening reception bears the opportunity to discuss about fascinating science and international cooperation, to mingle and to enjoy food and drinks. Also on the occasion, the German Embassy presents the exhibition ‘NOBELS and Masters of Abstraction,’ portraits of laureates by German photographer Peter Badge.

Join the community

For further information on the programme, please visit the AAAS website. @lindaunobel will be part of the online discussions about #aaasmtg. We are looking forward to being in contact with you!