"No guarantee, but a good step on the way to a professorship"
Leading a team of their own helps young researchers to become independent at an early stage. The University of Münster also has many teams of junior researchers which provide the team-leaders with an opportunity to take on responsibility early and qualify themselves for a university professorship later on. Having such a position also strengthens a lot of important competences. Here we present the leaders of just three of many such teams: Dr. Lena Frischlich, Prof. Raphael Wittkowski and Dr. Anna Junker.
Dr. Lena Frischlich, Department of Communication
“I had never before applied to lead a team of junior researchers. But the main focus of the funding line matched my fields of research really well,” says Dr. Lena Frischlich, explaining why she chose the programme “Safeguarding and strengthening democracy in digital society”, funded by the government of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Lena Frischlich has a PhD in Psychology, and since January 2018 she has been heading an interdisciplinary team of junior researchers at Münster University’s Department of Communication. Currently supported by two research associates and a student assistant, she is investigating the staging, effects and proliferation of online propaganda in the context of modern phenomena of digital communication. The aim is to develop strategies for strengthening democratic resilience in the population. Looking at the leadership of a team of junior researchers as a promotional measure, Lena Frischlich has observed a change currently taking place. “My impression is that the ‘classic’ career from PhD to post-doc and then via habilitation to a professorship is still very widespread in Communication Science. In the field of Psychology there are more teams of junior researchers. Overall, though, career paths will become more diverse everywhere.” Communications psychologist Frischlich is convinced of the advantages of junior research teams as a way of working. “As a team leader I have more responsibility than a post-doc, but I also have much more freedom and fewer duties outside research than an associate professor does.” For example, she explains, heading a junior research team is not automatically linked to teaching, but is a research post.
When asked if she would like to work as a professor later, Lena Frischlich has a ready answer: “That’s why I’m doing this job. Heading a team of junior researchers is no guarantee, but it’s a good step on the way to a professorship. But even if it doesn’t ultimately work out that way, you have acquired a lot of experience in project management and team management, which are important outside university too.”
Prof. Raphael Wittkowski, Institute of Theoretical Physics
For Associate Professor Dr. Raphael Wittkowski and his Emmy Noether Junior Research Group ‘Theory of active soft matter’, which is being funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG), the “excellent scientific environment” and the technical orientation of the new Center for Soft Nanoscience (SoN) make the University of Münster an ideal location for his team’s work. Together with three PhD students and, currently, seven master students and two bachelor students, physicist Wittkowski is doing research on so-called self-propelled nanometer and micrometer particles. “For a few years now, it has been possible to produce particles which are as small as bacteria and which can move autonomously, much like many types of microorganisms,” Wittkowski explains. These particles have enormous potential, for example, in medicine and in materials science. The young researcher is completely in his element in his role as team leader. “I’m there for the team with the utmost effort,” he says. For him, it is very important to provide the best possible advice for his team members in their research and to support them when they are planning and preparing their further careers in, or outside, academia.
An interim evaluation of his project by the DFG is due to take place in the coming year. “The funding provided in the Emmy Noether Programme is a great support in my research work,” says Wittkowski, with a little over two years of the funding period having now passed. “Although I had chosen some difficult problems for my research project – and I first had to set up a research team, and my team members had to familiarize themselves with their research tasks – we have nonetheless been able to work very productively and get some very important results. Provided the evaluation is successful, funding is set to last until September 2021. Raphael Wittkowski is optimistic for the future: “I’m really motivated to continue on this path I have taken in research and teaching,” he says. “There are still a lot of important problems which have to be solved.”
Dr. Anna Junker, European Institute for Molecular Imaging
Dr. Anna Junker’s work involves the development of imaging probes and pharmacological agents, for example applicable for diagnosis and therapy of cancer. Since May 2018 Anna Junker, a medicinal chemist has been heading a research group at the European Institute for Molecular Imaging (EIMI) at the University of Münster. The group is working within the Emmy Noether Programme funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). The funding primarily enables her to work independently. “Normally, young researchers do not have the opportunity – especially at the beginning of their career – to perform research fully independently,” she says. “However, the funding applied for, spread over five years, gives me certain planning security. Also, Münster University provides the Emmy Noether research team leaders with the right to award doctorates, which means that my team is not bound to any professorship.” Currently, Anna Junker supervises five PhD students and three or four master’s students a year, as well as one post-doc. Besides this supervision, project management, in particular, is the main task the team leader has. “Being the principal investigator entails a lot,” she says. “For me, it is a great advantage to be leading a junior research team and to have the chance at such an early stage to try out various things such as team management, resource planning or networking to establish scientific collaborations. It is definitely a learning curve,”
Anna Junker was able to choose the location for her team herself, anywhere in Germany – and she opted quite deliberately for Münster. “Münster University provides the best possible conditions for my research project,” she says. “What was decisive for me was the good interdisciplinary collaboration between people from Organic Chemistry, Pharmaceutical/Medicinal Chemistry and the EIMI.” Pharmacist Anna Junker sees the funding she has received through the Emmy Noether Programme as a springboard to the professorship she aspires to. The award of the scholarship was in itself a great accolade for her research work, she says, and has helped to raise her visibility. She sums up the first year as follows: “We work very well together in the team, and my team members always support each other. I think we are doing well – but there is always more to learn.”
Text: Jana Schiller