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Claus-Michael Lehr selected as a scout in the Henriette Herz-Programme

The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation has selected Claus-Michael Lehr as a scout within the Henriette-Herz-Programme.This award allows him to select three young scientific talents from abroad who will work at HIPS for one year as Alexander von Humboldt fellows. In the interview, he explains how this came about and how important international collaboration in science is to him.

Dear Claus-Michael, you have been selected as a "scout" in the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation's Henriette Herz-Programme - what does that mean?

As a scout in the Henriette Herz-Programme, I have the opportunity to nominate three young, PhDs from abroad for a one-year Humboldt fellowship each. I have a total of three years to do this. In contrast to the "regular" procedure, the candidates are then only subjected to a formal examination and can then immediately start at HIPS. As a rule, candidates must not have studied in Germany, as the Humboldt Foundation wants to increase subject and regional diversity with new talent. Furthermore, it is welcomed if the first sponsored candidate is a female researcher, so that the proportion of women amongst the sponsored fellows increases. This programme offers me a quick and uncomplicated way to bring excellent people from all over the world to our institute.

What are the requirements for being selected as a scout?

The scouts are usually experienced researchers who are well established in their respective fields. Since the Henriette Herz-Programme focuses on international collaboration and the promotion of young scientists, the scouts should of course also be able to prove that they have engaged with these topics in the past. Apparently, I was able to convince the jury with my previous activities in these areas: Many years ago, I had already founded a network called "Galenos" with some European colleagues, which still exists and now also extends to the USA, India, and Oceania.  We have since transferred the "Euro-PhD Programme" we started back then to HIPS and all its research areas. The core idea is that doctoral students doing their PhD at a foreign partner university can spend at least six months of their doctorate at HIPS or our own doctoral students can spend such a period abroad. If all other requirements are met (including at least one joint publication with the home and host labs), the participants eventually receive a certificate, which is typically awarded at our annual HIPS Symposium. This programme has been very well received and offers participants real added value to their PhD. I myself did my PhD in the Netherlands and was a postdoc in the USA, so I know how enriching it is to break out of your usual environment.

How do you find suitable candidates for the programme? What's important for you in the selection process?

To this end, it is a great advantage to be well-connected in the scientific world. When talking to international colleagues, there are often opportunities to recruit one of their talented graduates for the HIPS. The scholarships within the scout programme now offer me the opportunity to take advantage of these opportunities. If a colleague I have known well for years suggests one of his graduates to me, I can also be fairly sure that he or she has the required qualifications. Apart from that, you always have to rely a little on your gut feeling when selecting candidates. The programme also gives me access to a whole new target group, namely excellent young researchers who, for various reasons, would not apply for a Humboldt scholarship on their own. These include candidates who have lucrative offers for other positions or are already employed elsewhere. These people would be difficult to reach without the scholarships in the scout programme.

In general, it is particularly important to me that candidates bring their own projects and ideas to work on at HIPS. Their fellowship should be prepared the candidates for a career as independent scientists, so it is no use if I dictate the research projects to them. By the way, I already have a very good candidate from Africa in mind for the first of the three positions - if everything goes well, he can start with us soon. Previously, we had already hosted a young colleague from Nigeria as an award winner of the Georg Forster Programme of the Humboldt Foundation.

Finally, a question about the current situation regarding Covid-19: How has the pandemic changed collaboration with international partners from your network? Has everything become a bit more complicated or has the increased use of video chats perhaps even brought you closer together?

That's an interesting question. I think that the long-term impact of the pandemic on international collaboration cannot yet be properly assessed. In fact, thanks to the extensive use of video chats, people now talk more often with their colleagues from abroad. At these meetings, however, almost exclusively subject-related topics are discussed, since everyone now spends a lot of time in video conferences and does not want to prolong their screen time. What is missing are the spontaneous conversations during coffee breaks or at a joint dinner. But it is precisely in these conversations that the best ideas often arise! Unfortunately, the absence of these meetings also means that you have fewer opportunities to meet new people from the field and thus expand your network. That is a real shame. So I would say that collaboration in an existing network has become easier, but without real meetings it is very difficult to expand the network and make new personal contacts. In any case, I'm looking forward to attending conferences again in due course and meeting new, young scientists there - perhaps also the next Humboldt fellow! Until then, interested candidates are welcome to contact me via email.

Dr. Alwin Hartman and Dr. Yannic Nonnenmacher conducted the interview.