As scientists, contributing to society is one of our main goals – or at least it probably was when we started out. We all, at some point, longed for the trust and appreciation granted to scientists, thinking: I want to offer something important, I want to help people, I want to save lives. Soon enough, though, we realized that not everyone appreciates our efforts, that many times our research fails, or the impact is not as significant as we had hoped. 

And somewhere between this realization and our insane working hours, our struggle to keep our solid academic aims and personal life in balance, we, the scientific community, may have lost touch with reality and the immediate problems that our society faces, endangering the trust invested in us. This impaired trust has become obvious in the past years, during which the public opinion, misled by dangerous misconceptions, has disregarded concrete scientific evidence about serious matters, like global warming and child vaccination, putting our future in great danger.

Firefighters, however, have always been warmly embraced by the public. There is a sort of effortless awe associated with them since our childhoods; a kind of a deep admiration and trust that these people simply inspire. How can one not admire the people who, when everyone else runs away, go against every fundamental survival instinct and enter the fire in order to protect other people? Is there, I wonder, any greater offering to the common good than risking your own life on a daily basis for people you do not even know?

So, maybe firefighters could teach the scientific community how to reconnect with society. Two wonderful people, featured here, will help us to connect and learn from the firefighters since they are not only members of the scientific community, but also volunteer firefighters in the fire department of Tübingen.

Tobias
Tobias at the Institute for Applied Economic Research
Johannes
Johannes at the Tübingen Applied Physics Institute

Meet Johannes Rheinlaender and Tobias Braendle, two postdocs in our little city. Johannes is a physicist at the Tübingen Applied Physics Institute, developing novel microscopy techniques that have direct medical and biological applications. His work is closely related to various avenues of cancer research and it could be vital for a cure in the future. Tobias is an economist at the Institute for Applied Economic Research where he researches ways to best utilize government resources, aiming to provide guidance during the formation of new laws. In particular, he has focused on one of the most important causes of low quality of life and poverty in developed countries: unemployment.

Even though the scientific fields of Johannes and Tobias are completely different, their lives and ideas are quite similar. Both entered the Youth Fire Department, an organization similar to the boy or girl scouts, at an early age. Even after they left, both kept their connection to firefighting alive through volunteering during their studies and their academic careers, in spite of their ever-increasing workloads.

Volunteering in the fire department is physically as well as psychologically challenging. Unquestionably, the psychological challenges can be huge, since firefighters face very unpleasant situations that not everyone can handle. The physical challenges include regular trainings and a great variety of alarm calls, which are unusually common in Tübingen (at least once a day!). On top of all that come the extra events firefighters participate in, for example different competitions or public events like the annual Open Door Day, which took place on the 21st of May this year and included everything from cooking and serving to intense fire alarm demonstrations.

The highly challenging nature of firefighting has deeply touched both Johannes and Tobias on both a scientific and a personal level. Their training emphasizes focus, care, and an ability to prioritize and make decisions: traits that can easily be adapted to the world of research. More to the point, facing difficult situations with human lives on the line grants them a different perspective of life, one in which failed experiments or rejected papers are not all that important.

While it is a lot of work, firefighting can also bring many benefits to one’s daily life. Surprisingly, one of the benefits is fun, as Johannes and Tobias both mentioned. Fun can come from the physical aspects of firefighting, but the social benefits seem to play the most important role. Firefighters risk their lives together: at every alarm call, they depend on each other to stay safe and to stay alive. Naturally, this makes for very close friendships, forming a strong connection hard to replicate in a laboratory environment.

Johannes as a firefigther
Tobias as a firefighter

Another perk of being a firefighter for both Johannes and Tobias is the numerous new people they meet. Getting to know people from completely different backgrounds and learning from them is a common occurrence for a firefighter, in contrast to a scientist. It is in the nature of a scientist to learn, and yes, we scientists find that fun. However, we usually expect to learn within academia and teach outside of it. This attitude of ours may be responsible for our occasional detachment from society. But Johannes and Tobias are free of this myopia and, as they both said, their communication with various people has kept them grounded, widened their perspectives, and even helped them in their research.

Johannes and Tobias at the Open Door Day

Johannes and Tobias have learned a great deal from volunteer firefighting and their experiences have made them into two grounded and competent people, as well as better scientists. Two people that managed to contribute to society through both their research and their volunteer work, while simultaneously juggling academic careers and full, happy personal lives. They both got married this summer (2017) by the way! We all wish them the best!

Now it is our turn to learn from them and take a break from our labs and offices occasionally to do things outside of our comfort zone and independent from science, but most importantly, to be humble and open to different experiences and people.

Do you want to learn more? Watch these two videos with Johannes and Tobias answering a few important questions in their own words.

If you want to volunteer as a firefighter, you can always contact the fire station. In Tübingen, is seems at least some knowledge of German is necessary. Check the website for more information: feuerwehr-tuebingen.de.

Author:

Ioanna Karamichali is a PhD candidate at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, Germany.

Categories: Tips for a PhD