Research opportunities for international geoscientists

"This article was published in our October 2017 newsletter". Sign up here.

When the Earth begins to tremble, nothing is safe – not only our material possessions are at risk, but above all our lives. According to a study conducted by the Karlsruhe Institute of Technologymore than two million people around the world have died as a result of earthquakes since 1900. The costs of the economic damage they cause runs into the hundreds of billions. All of this is what makes the work of seismologists – earthquake researchers – so important. Fabrice Cotton is one of them.

Correctly assessing the risk posed by earthquakes

Geophysics professor Fabrice Cotton

The French researcher runs the Seismic Hazard and Stress Field department at the German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ) in Potsdam, which is one of 18 Helmholtz Centres in Germany. At the GFZ, geophysics professor Fabrice Cotton combines theory with practical application. With the aid of analytical methods such as an assessment of probabilistic seismic hazard, his team provides construction engineers with hard-and-fast data that allow them to build new earthquake-proof buildings. "I analyse the tremors that earthquakes produce and use simulations and forecasts to draw up models and maps. They show which areas in Germany and worldwide are exposed to particularly severe risks. To give just one example from Germany: a construction engineer who is building in the Rhine River rift has to comply with different rules than in Potsdam, where there is no earthquake risk."

An attractive offer from Germany

Professor Cotton has been researching and teaching in Potsdam since September 2014. Previously he was a professor at the University of Grenoble in France. His family followed him in the summer of 2015 so that his two children could complete the school year in France.

Cotton has actually been associated with Potsdam for considerably longer, as he first forged contacts there back in 2004. At the time, he was funded by a Franco-German mobility programme (only in German) for young researchers that goes by the name of PPP in Germany and Procope in France. It was the Helmholtz Association’s recruitment initiative, however, that was instrumental in enabling him to obtain a chair in Potsdam. Since 2012, the Association has been actively and consistently recruiting top international researchers. Besides its international orientation, the initiative aims particularly to increase the proportion of female researchers.

"As part of the recruitment initiative, I obtained staff thanks to one postdoc and several doctoral scholarships. We were also provided with funding to purchase seismographs – instruments to measure the Earth’s tremors." Generally speaking, as Cotton goes on to explain, there are far more resources and indeed research projects in Germany than there are in France.

A new phase in Cotton’s life

Professor Cotton was also attracted to Germany because of his interest in the country and its culture. "German was my first foreign language at school." He is trying to improve his German, "but because I can get by in English and French both at work and in my personal life, it isn’t happening as fast as I thought." There are twelve different nationalities among his 25-member team and their working language is English. The geophysicist is quite clear about one thing: "The recruitment initiative was a unique opportunity for a new phase in my life."

Good conditions for young researchers

Young researchers can find good conditions for studying geosciences at many German universities. In studies like the CHE Ranking, the following universities for example score particularly well:

The conditions for young researchers in the field of geosciences are also excellent at non-university research institutions in Germany, for example:

German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ)

The German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ) conducts research into the Earth sciences. The GFZ is divided into seven departments – geophysics, geodesy, geochemistry, geomaterials, geoarchives, geotechnologies and geoservices. The more than 1,100 employees at the centre conduct not only basic research but are also interested in the practical application of their findings. For example, the researchers develop early warning systems for earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions.