**Developing models for biological
processes** In 1989 a friend of mine, also studying
maths, and I felt ready to leave the area where we grew
up and to experience another university. Hawaii didn't
seem to be an option. So we discussed several options
within Germany that we found appealing, and we made a
tour to these various places. We decided to continue our
studies in Tübingen because the university has a very
good reputation, the surrounding area is very nice, and
the mathematics department offered classes on "chaos
theory"--a hot topic in mathematics in the 1990s.
In Tübingen I met Professor K. P.
Hadeler, one of the fathers of modern mathematical
biology. Through his courses I became interested in this
area very quickly and I decided to write my thesis in
mathematical biology. The type of research done in
Tübingen compares to the era of theoretical physics done
by Heisenberg, Bohr, and others at the beginning of the
last century. We were developing mathematical models for
real (biological) processes and analysing them with
mathematical methods.
On many occasions an existing theory had to be
modified or further developed to be applicable to
biological systems. I immediately realised that
mathematical biology was (and still is) a fast growing
area, and as some people say, it is *the* science
of the 21st century. I graduated with my MSc in 1992 and
PhD in 1995. Then I went on to do my habilitation in
Tübingen. Habilitation is a qualification that gives one
eligibility to become a professor in Germany and is
roughly equivalent to assistant professor level.
In 1998 I visited the University of Utah in Salt Lake City
for 1 year. In retrospect, this was the most important
step in my career. The University of Utah always was
(and still is) one of the centres in mathematical
biology in the world. I established many important
contacts and it opened many doors that ultimately led to
my position here in Edmonton. In Utah I worked with Hans
Othmer, one of the leaders in this field. I originally
met him at a conference in Heidelberg back in 1996 and I
asked him if I could come to Utah to work with him. He
just said, "If you have money you can come." I "only"
needed to find financial support, which of course is not
so easy but also not impossible.
I heard about funding opportunities at two German
research agencies, the DAAD and the DFG. I
applied for a research grant at the DFG and was
successful. In Utah I also met Jim Keener and Mark
Lewis, two other important names in mathematical
biology. (*Editor's note: DFG is a Next Wave
sponsor*.)
**Looking for work outside Germany** In 1999 I
went back to Tübingen to finish off my habilitation,
which I completed in July 2001. Then I suddenly faced
the barrier I consider the most destructive for German
academics. I could not find a permanent position. By
that time my wife and I had three young children. There
were two postdoc positions available--one for 2 years at
the University of Bonn, or one for 3 years at the Max
Planck Institute in Leipzig--but nothing with a longer
perspective. Hence my wife and I decided to look outside
Germany.
Important countries for mathematical biology include
the United States, the Netherlands, and the United
Kingdom. There are also good schools in other countries,
for example, France, Italy, Spain, China, and Japan, but
Germany does not play a leading role in mathematical
biology. I was aware that the University of Vancouver in
Canada is another good place for mathematical biology
and I applied there. In the meantime, I became aware
that Edmonton was setting up a new centre in
mathematical biology under the leadership of Mark Lewis. It helped that Mark knew
me from those days in Utah.
Now I am a professor here in Edmonton. The climate is
different than Hawaii would have been, but the
University of Alberta offers a perfect environment for
creative research combined with scientific education.
However, I still feel sad that there is no hope for
young researchers in Germany--temporary positions are no
alternative! Many of my contemporaries have chosen a
similar path of emigration. Indeed, of six friends who
did the habilitation in a mathematical discipline in
Germany around 2000, only one person stayed in the
country. The others found positions in the U.S. or
Canada.
Looking back at my own experiences, I would encourage
every student to explore possibilities to do part of
your education abroad. Use the exchange programs of your
university and spend a year across (or even in the
middle of!) the ocean. Apply for grants and visit the
best research groups in the world (e.g., for
mathematical biology in English-speaking countries I
would recommend Oxford, Edinburgh, Leeds, Dundee,
Amsterdam, Utrecht, Montreal McGill, Edmonton,
Vancouver, UC Davis, Arizona, Ohio, Salt Lake City,
Minneapolis, Miami, and in Germany, Berlin, MPI Leipzig,
Bonn, Heidelberg, and there are many more). In the
future we will see more and more centres in mathematical
biology around the world, and hopefully also in
Germany.
My position in Edmonton is permanent and as my family
is very happy here we plan to stay. But our hearts still
belong to Germany so if a good position would come up
there I would certainly consider going
back. |