Internationalism has been an important feature of my career. Today, as an academic, I am happy to have an appointment in which I am able to pass on to my students the importance of international networks in the modern scientist?s career. I supervise PhD students as part of the DFG-funded European Graduate College, "Proxies in Earth History" ( EUROPROX --see box). This Graduiertenkolleg is the fruit of a collaboration involving the department of geosciences of Bremen University (in Germany), the University of Utrecht, and the Free University of Amsterdam (both of which are in the Netherlands).
During their studies, all EUROPROX PhD students work for at least half a year at a partner institute on the other side of the border. As I know from my own experience, such a jump between institutes and countries is exciting and brings you a lot. Not only does it improve your knowledge of local beer and "dinner habits", you also have the opportunity to experience different university and scientific systems, and make contact with a larger group of scientists (all of whom have their own scientific ideas and visions). In my case it was even an essential part of finding a permanent position within science.
What Are Proxies?
Proxy variables (shortly proxies) are properties that indirectly give information about environmental conditions in the past. For instance, it is impossible to measure the temperatures of ocean surface waters of 10,000 years ago. However, the chemical composition of the fossil cell walls of the several plankton groups that made them varies with temperature. By analysing the cell wall composition of species which lived 10,000 years, we can obtain information about the upper water temperatures of the past.
One of the reasons to study proxies is concern about human impacts on, for instance, climate. To estimate the effect of man on such a system, it is essential to know which nonhuman, or natural, factors influence and steer it. A way to get insight into the complexity of steering mechanisms is to establish detailed reconstructions of past environments. There are many different proxies, and the scientists working within EUROPROX try to develop, improve, and test proxies; study their alteration by secondary processes; and apply them in environmental reconstructions at different time intervals of global change.
After studying at the University of Utrecht, I moved for 1 year to the University of Oslo (Norway) before returning to Utrecht for a PhD. I study tiny fossil marine algal remains (dinoflagellate cysts) that can give information about past oceanographic conditions, such as ocean current systems or upper ocean environments. During my PhD, I tried to find out what factors caused some of the rapid climatic changes (i.e., changes from ice-age conditions to a present day climate within a time span of 5 to 25 years!) that have taken place over the past 16,000 years. Well, I still don't know them, but I got some interesting results! Thus, a postdoc and subsequently a permanent position at the department of historical geology/paleontology at the University of Bremen followed.
Here in Bremen I have been heavily involved in building up EUROPROX, a task for which my personal contacts with scientists in both Germany and the Netherlands, along with my knowledge of the country-dependant funding systems and the cultures of both countries, has proven most helpful. What surprised me was that the latter aspect especially appeared to be essential. Although the Dutch and German cultures are very similar, the dissimilarities often caused "interpretation differences". It was exciting to see that in both countries it was these differences in particular that increased the interest in working with each other and resulted in the adaptation of "the function well" techniques.
In addition to close co-operation on the science itself, EUROPROX also offers an educational programme for graduate students, in which the expertise available in both countries is combined. In addition to the obvious advantages of learning from experts in a particular field, this gives the PhD students of the different countries the opportunity to get in contact with each other. Such contacts could be of great value in their future careers, as my own experience shows. When I was a PhD student I travelled to an overseas conference with a professor from my institute. "Remember, Karin,? he said to me on the flight, with a fatherly smile on his face, ?the students of today are the professors of tomorrow". ?Bèèèèh,? I thought, and during the conference we, the student generation, had a lot of fun in the pub imagining what kind of tics and crazy habits we would have to develop to qualify to become professors (since none of the professors we knew seemed to be "normal", at least judged by the standards of the world beyond university). Well, most of us didn't become professors and we have found jobs all over the world, in many different professions, in industry and at universities. But despite this scattering, many of the friendships and contacts that we built up during that time still exist.
In my present position I often can make use of these contacts. Not only do they form the basis for several international scientific projects that are funded by international science foundations, they can also be of help in finding jobs for the PhDs under my daily supervision. In my opinion, an "international network" is essential in order to ensure that your scientific work is of an international standard, and to prevent you or your team from doing science that has already been done or is currently being carried out. The fact that you know people personally facilitates the exchange of information on techniques, literature, and research material, and last but not least provides a good basis for visiting other countries and experience different cultures in an "insider" way which is hard for the ordinary tourist to experience. So, today I sometimes find myself saying to my students with a motherly smile on my face, ?Remember, ??
EUROPROX has been filled with life during the last year and students from six different countries have found a PhD or postdoc position in Bremen. A lively exchange of students takes place especially within the scope of the educational program. In evaluating the first year, it seems that the formula works and EUROPROX forms an enthusiastic and solid basis for European integration within our research fields.