The College for Life Sciences at the Wissenschaftskolleg

the Wissenschaftskolleg welcomes a new group of junior life-scientists

By Giovanni Frazzetto

That the Wissenschaftskolleg has long been fond of the life-sciences is not big news. A quick review of the yearbooks reveals traces of biology already at the infancy of the institute when, in its second year of existence (1982/83), Fellow Eckart Frehland joined the Kolleg with a research project that went by the title 'Causality and chance: is the world predictable?', and the year after, Fellow Raphael Falk embarked on a project called ‘The Gene in search of an identity’.
Ever since, the life sciences have grown to become a strong presence at the institute.
In 1991 Rüdiger Wehner, then a Permanent Fellow, started to bring to the Kolleg focus-groups in theoretical biology. Raghavendra Gadagkar and Paul Schmid-Hempel have continued to do so since 2002 and 2008, respectively.
Not least, during the past two years, the Wissenschaftskolleg has offered renewed attention to biology with the creation of a new programme, the College for Life Sciences (CfLS). The CfLS Fellows of the College, coming from all fields of the life-sciences, are generally post-docs or junior researchers who have recently been appointed professors and/or become principal investigators of their own research laboratory.
The CfLS motto is Gain Time To Think. If it is a luxury for established scholars and tenured professors to be able to spend a year away from tutoring or teaching duties, departmental meetings and other kinds of administrative chores, that kind of opportunity is exceptionally rare for scientists still in the early stages of their careers, who must try to launch a promising line of investigation, find their preferred niche within their fields  and delineate their path of inquiry. Such crucial steps are often constrained by pressure to continue to produce vast amounts of data, procure funds, recruit adequate stuff and publish.  
The Wissenschaftskolleg grants CfLS Fellows a unique opportunity to step back from their routine work and gain time to reflect on their domain of study, as well as formulate daring and unusual ideas, interacting with scientists and intellectuals from the widest possible variety of academic fields.
Selected by the CfLS Scientific Committee in the Spring, this year’s Fellows are eight highly motivated individuals – from Canada, England, India, Spain and Switzerland – who will spend three to six months at the Kolleg. Their research interests range from ecology, immunology and the epidemiology of disease to the evolutionary biology of social behaviour and hearing, as well as neuroscience.
In October, the CfLS Fellows introduced themselves during a half-day workshop at which they presented their research interests and Wissenschaftskolleg projects as well as their long-term plans and aspirations, and received feedback from their fellow Fellows. The symposium was well-attended and there was good, lively discussion after each presentation.

We wish all CfLS Fellows an enriching and productive residency at the Kolleg!

To give a flavour of what the experience means for these young scientists, I include here first impressions  by two of this year’s group of CfLS Fellows, Hari Sridhar and Natasha Mhatre.

Hari Sridhar (Indian Institute of Science) – Evolutionary ecology

Usually, I have a long list of excuses for my research when it does not go according to plan: computer crashed, bug in software, can’t find a journal paper, busy supervisor, accounts and paperwork, teaching responsibilities, etc. Wiko is a frustrating place because it will not allow me any of these excuses! In fact, my father thinks that the Wiko is an expensive experiment in the sociology of academia: invite academics, give them ideal working conditions and see if they perform any better than they otherwise do. Therefore, I am a little intimidated by the setting that Wiko provides.
However, this opportunity could not have come at a better time. I submitted my PhD thesis a few months ago and (hopefully) will be awarded my degree soon. The six months I will spend at Wiko will help me make a well thought-out transition from being a student to a professional ecologist. Ecology is unique among biological disciplines in the degree to which it adopts methods and ideas from other disciplines. Interacting with fellows from other fields of academia might lead me to new ways of thinking about ecological research and help shape my research goals at this critical juncture in my career.

Natasha Mhatre (University of Bristol) – Evolutionary Ecology

This is a list of things I have done more of since I came to the Wiko at Berlin. I have paused and reflected more; the rhythm of my days is different here. In this altered beat, I have done more maths, I have photographed more, heard more music and deeper silences. I have written and received more correspondence and heaped my plate with promises. I may even have read and written more altogether but this is harder to ascertain; I will claim difficulties in quantification. I have eaten and drunk more sorts of food and drink, if not more, period. I’ve tried to exercise. I have met more people, and of more varieties; more in a month here than I did over the last three years. And so I have talked and listened as much as I possibly could. I am still a little in awe of my companions. Fortunately some of that is dissipated when we laugh as much as we do; if it’s not more often, it’s certainly louder. But I have slept less; all this has to be accommodated into the days somehow.