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Fields & Applications Mass Spectrometry, Clinical

Swiss Precision Research

How did your additional VP role come about?

Firstly, I was asked to take the job – but additionally, I’ve had such a great time with my own research at ETH that I wanted to give something back. I now have a broad role with my staff – guiding research, internal research funding, establishing platforms; developing own competence centers and national competency centers; and managing ETH’s connection with the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and the European Research Council. And I’m the direct contact for all professors with respect to research.

Sounds like a lot to organize...

The major part of my work is focused on supporting research (which is predominantly fundamental or basic science). We have strategic research projects (in the energy, climate, and food sectors, to name just a few). Essentially, we look at research initiatives and consider how we can support the research groups and connect professors from different disciplines and fields. Another aspect is technology transfer, which includes everything related to patents, licensing, spinoffs, and industrial relations in general.

What is the advantage of your approach?

People now talk to each other much more than they did. They are also more aware of new research projects – moreover, their interaction is enabling technology transfer into many more areas of the school; for example, applying Big Data Science to other research areas, e.g. to personalized medicine. My role is to ensure that relevant researcher meet each other to share their thoughts and expertise, at which point we can begin to form competence centers to develop a sound research direction from bottom up.

It can take a bit of effort and encouragement to bring different departments and disciplines together. However, most researchers are keen to bring about cultural change and happy to work with other departments. After all, opening up your own world to other ideas and expertise can accelerate your own progress and greatly increase the impact of your work.

Where does analytical science slot into the puzzle?

Analytical science is very important. For example, it has a major impact on developing new materials because it’s essential for characterization. It’s also clear that mass spectrometry (MS) can have a huge impact on personalized medicine. In fact, all the analytical techniques are important and they are moving into new areas. Another example is the close connection between earth science and analytical science – we no longer just provide a lab service to our colleagues, we work alongside them. The increased interaction allows to get serious about improving analytical techniques for a greater impact. Just look at imaging; it now connects with all fields of medicine to help provide new prognostic and diagnostic monitoring tools. Clearly, there’s a steep learning curve from a scientific language point of view, but at least we no longer need to force people to talk to each other – they already understand the benefits of broader interaction.

How do you measure success?

It would be very easy just to highlight the list of Nobel Prize winners from ETH – it’s a very impressive list. However, there are other important criteria. For example, we are active in climate model development studies and our earth science department is one of the highest ranking in the world. But I consider the excellent educated students who are taking leading positions in academia and industry as one of the most significant successes of ETH.

We are celebrating our 160th birthday, and right from the beginning we’ve always welcomed talent from all over the world; Switzerland is simply too small to provide all talents needed. We are also very successful in securing basic funding for each professor, which allows them to follow up their ideas and begin research immediately – if they have a great idea today, they can start work on it tomorrow.

What about your own success?

I am very fortunate to have a professorship and a fantastic research group at ETH. Success will be if we succeed in encouraging greater interaction between departments and professors from different research fields. We want this to happen throughout the school so that others are more inclined to work together and share intellectual property rather than simply focus on building their own reputations. If we could transfer our technical potential into medical research, I would consider that a great achievement.

My ambition is to change some funding schemes. Instead of demanding extensive CVs and publication lists, and established reputations, I want to make it easier for young talented people to pursue their ideas. I think we have to trust young talents and give them the support they need to pursue innovative science. So, it’s really not about me. My goal is to achieve success for the school and I can tell you it is a very exciting pursuit.

Before my new role, I only saw ETH from the perspective of my own department and professorship. In just nine months, it feels like I am flying above and gainin a broader view of the school every day. I’ve even spotted five or six new research topics I’d like to pursue myself...

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About the Author
Rich Whitworth

Rich Whitworth completed his studies in medical biochemistry at the University of Leicester, UK, in 1998. To cut a long story short, he escaped to Tokyo to spend five years working for the largest English language publisher in Japan. "Carving out a career in the megalopolis that is Tokyo changed my outlook forever. When seeing life through such a kaleidoscopic lens, it's hard not to get truly caught up in the moment." On returning to the UK, after a few false starts with grey, corporate publishers, Rich was snapped up by Texere Publishing, where he spearheaded the editorial development of The Analytical Scientist. "I feel honored to be part of the close-knit team that forged The Analytical Scientist – we've created a very fresh and forward-thinking publication." Rich is now also Content Director of Texere Publishing, the company behind The Analytical Scientist.

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