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After attending a series of conferences in Germany and England, 28-year-old Katherine MacArthur from the UK is back at work – at Forschungszentrum Jülich, where she has held a postdoc position for around two years now. Using a microscope and computer, she is studying the structure and composition of metallic nanoparticles that are used as catalysts in fuel cells. Fuel cells convert hydrogen into electricity and heat, and as such play an important role in climate change mitigation and in the use of renewable energies. The better the catalysts, the more efficient the fuel cell technology. With this objective in mind, Katherine closely examines the nanoparticles, using an electron microscope that can penetrate to the atomic level.
Talking with Nobel laureates
One highlight in the last few weeks was the Nobel Laureate Meeting she attended in Lindau, recalls Katherine. At the 67th Lindau Meeting, 28 Nobel laureates exchanged their thoughts and ideas with 420 young researchers. Katherine had been nominated to take part by the Helmholtz Association. "I was particularly excited to meet Dan Shechtman, who discovered quasicrystals. Like me, he works with an electron microscope." Another thing Dan Shechtman and Katherine have in common is that neither of them is a chemist – yet they were invited to attend the meeting in Lindau, which this year was devoted to chemistry. Professor Shechtman from Israel even won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, but did his PhD in physics and later taught materials science. Katherine studied materials science and wrote her doctoral thesis on electron microscopy. "For me, one of the things to come out of the meeting: science should not have these artificial boundaries of chemistry or physics or biology."
Two important arguments in favour of Jülich
Katherine actually works at the Ernst Ruska-Centre for Microscopy and Spectroscopy with Electrons (ER-C), which is part of Forschungszentrum Jülich. The ER-C has no fewer than five top-of-the-range high-resolution electron microscopes. This outstanding equipment was also the reason why Katherine chose Jülich after completing her academic training in Oxford. Or, to be more precise, it was one of the two reasons – the second being her husband. Likewise a scientist, he had found an interesting position in nearby Aachen. Obviously, she says, "we have to try and find two independent research jobs, ideally in the same place." After drawing up separate lists of their favourites, they checked for possible matches. Jülich was the best fit: "Jülich is fantastic for electron microscopy and Aachen is very good for my husband’s area of research, which is metallurgy."
Many funding opportunities in Germany
Katherine was also attracted to Germany by the many good funding opportunities here. Her current post is financed by a Helmholtz Postdoctoral Fellowship. Generally speaking, she explains, “there is a large amount of funding available, especially for early career scientists.” This is also why she is pretty optimistic about the future: “We both want to stay in Germany.” Katherine is next planning to apply for a post as young research group leader.
Lively exchange with researchers from all over the world
Apart from the many top-class electron microscopes at the ER-C, Katherine also loves the fact that the institute is what is known as a user facility, which means that its equipment can also be used by external researchers. "There is a huge range of people from all over the world coming through the doors and bringing new ideas with them", she says. "This way, I get to be involved in a great variety of projects and research that I would not otherwise be doing. Recently, for instance, I was looking at minerals from the bottom of the sea." Something that Katherine is quite sure she would never have had the chance to do otherwise.
Various options for young researchers
Young researchers can also find good conditions for studying materials science at many German universities. In studies like the CHE Ranking, the following universities for example score particularly well:
- RWTH Aachen
- Universität Bayreuth
- Technische Universität Berlin
- Technische Universität Clausthal
- Technische Universität Darmstadt
The conditions for young researchers in the field of materials science are also excellent at non-university research institutions in Germany, for example:
How can a secure, affordable and environmentally-friendly energy supply be ensured? This is one of the major challenges today, and scientists at Forschungszentrum Jülich are trying to find possible solutions. The institution near Aachen is one of Europe’s largest interdisciplinary research centres. One focus is on energy and the environment, while another is on information and the brain, where for example a brain pacemaker for patients with Parkinson’s disease is being developed.
The Ernst Ruska-Centre for Microscopy and Spectroscopy with Electrons (ER-C) is one of ten institutes at Forschungszentrum Jülich.