Interview | MBI | 25-01-2023

It is important to be focused

Interview with Professor Thomas Elsaesser from the Max Born Institute for Nonlinear Optics and Short Pulse Spectroscopy (MBI) about his transfer to emeritus status

Prof. Dr. Thomas Elsässer | Photo: Tina Merkau / WISTA Management GmbH

Professor Thomas Elsaesser started out studying physics at Heidelberg University, before changing to the Technical University of Munich (TUM). After completing his doctorate on a topic of ultrafast spectroscopy at TUM in 1986, he earned a post-doctoral lecturing qualification (Habilitation) in 1991. Elsaesser took on the role of Director of the Max Born Institute for Nonlinear Optics and Short Pulse Spectroscopy (MBI) in 1993, and was appointed Professor of Experimental Physics at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin in 1994. Together with two other directors, he led the MBI for 29 years. Elsaesser was transferred to emeritus status in September 2022.

Mr. Elsaesser, besides focusing on excellence in research – you yourself received two ERC Grants – you have always had a keen interest in supporting young scientists. Let us first talk about this issue.

Yes, supporting young scientists is of crucial importance – not only in the role of an institute director, but also as a university professor. In the STEM subjects, we have to start early. For example, I am involved in a program, run by the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities (BBAW), where we teach individual lessons or hold discussions at high schools in Brandenburg. This is an ideal way to start talking to young people; they also visit the institute occasionally on field trips and check out the labs.

Needless to say, early career researchers are important. I have supervised some 60 PhD students over the past 30 years. It is great to see what has become of them – some are now professors themselves, others have made successful careers in industry. Ultimately, it is not so much about achieving a particular goal in their doctoral thesis, but about having acquired a mode of practice that enables them to know how to structure and solve a problem.

What advice would you like to share with young researchers at the FVB?

It is important to be focused. This is not a trivial issue in a society that suffers badly from information overload from all kinds of sources. And it is a matter of developing techniques for overcoming difficulties. Good experiments never work first time round – the trick is to find out why something did not go to plan. Social skills are also very important – but above all, it is important for researchers to develop their own working methods that produce results. I would advise them to not get distracted – supervisors also need to bear this in mind. People need time to develop things and structure them so that they can manage them as they see fit. Sometimes you end up with a completely different result to what you had originally set out to achieve. A colleague of mine calls this the “moving target.” You ask a question. But whether you ultimately arrive at the answer to that question – or to a completely different one – is not a foregone outcome in good basic research. Many truly spectacular things have been discovered that way.

Communication is another key element. It is important for young people to talk to each other about what they are doing. Such dialogue must start at university – where it receives inadequate attention because study programs are too rigid and there is often insufficient time. This is why researchers must take the initiative themselves and be willing to discuss things that are not yet fully developed or understood.

At the FVB, institute directors are automatically members of the Executive Board, so it is important to represent the interests of the institute while acting in the interests of the alliance. How difficult did you find this dual role?

Generally speaking, I would say that there is ultimately no contradiction between the interests of an individual institute and the interests of the FVB. The FVB is the legal entity, and the Executive Board, as I see it, is structured in that way because we must join forces in our efforts to advance our activities. Of course there are issues where vested interests play a role, such as the funding arrangements for the Joint Administration. But you always find a compromise in the end. So I think the Forschungsverbund is a good concept – it saves money, makes the individual institutes more visible to the outside world, and gives them a weight in the political debate that they would not have alone. Looking back, the Forschungsverbund has made a number of pioneering administrative achievements that are often forgotten today. In the 1990s, for instance, the FVB was one of the first research institutions in Germany to implement SAP accounting software, paving the way for cost accounting. Consequently, the FVB played a pioneering role in introducing cost and performance accounting to a research setting, a highly controversial issue in science at the time.

It is important that the institutes are scientifically independent. We do not stick our oar in the scientific topics explored by the other institutes. There are occasional synergies in our research, but essentially the FVB is about administration and external representation. And this can only be effective if all institutes are committed to it.

What advice would you like to give the FVB on your departure?

It is important that the FVB achieves adequate visibility in Berlin as a major research institution. It acts vis-à-vis the funding bodies, enabling it to draw attention to problems that affect research. We should dare to speak more openly about problems – and always clearly communicate the impact of new administrative rules. You can only be successful and make an impact if you are proactive. In the past, it was always the case that the alliance carried more weight in shaping framework conditions than any of its individual institutes. Other than that, it is very important to attract good staff. This is an enormous problem in research at present; we are competing globally for academic staff. In this respect, the FVB should think about how it can help to increase our visibility. And in my view, it would be advisable to establish a summer student program that enables high school students to spend four to six weeks at our institutes, getting an idea of our work. My experience from the U.S. suggests that this would be an excellent way to attract and keep in touch with young people at the secondary education stage. It is not just a matter of gaining junior scientists, but of giving young people an understanding of research. Current crises such as the Covid pandemic and climate change show how important this is.

The interview was conducted by Anja Wirsing.

The interview was published in Verbundjournal 119 | 2022 with the focus on "30 years of FVB."