GTC in the next 20 years

The Graduate Training Centre (GTC) of Neuroscience of Tübingen University has recently said its goodbyes to Prof. Dr. Horst Herbert and welcomed PD Dr. Marc Himmelbach as the new director of the GTC. Aiste Ambrase talks to Dr. Himmelbach – who is  known to most as a researcher and lecturer of multiple courses at the GTC – about his future and and the future of the GTC.

What were your first tasks as a head of the GTC?

Together with Horst Herbert, before he left, we looked at the organization of the upcoming winter semester, whether the teaching was fine and what new lecturers were coming in. Some challenges arose when different initiatives came from different colleagues, suggesting to make some changes in the future, like making the programme less flexible or more flexible, giving new courses or changing them. So I had to look through the programmes, see how the changes fit in there and respond to the colleagues. Also, understanding the procedures is another challenge. I have known the GTC for a very long time but not the paperwork. Still struggling with that!

What is your vision for the GTC in the future?

Marc: To talk about my individualistic vision would be unfair to the many colleagues who are involved in the organization of the GTC. But I think it is safe to say that we want to see this graduate training centre in 20 years where it is now – being the primary training centre of neuroscience in Germany, in combination with all the advantages that Tübingen, as a hub, provides for neuroscience. There are multiple master’s and PhD programmes somewhat overlapping with ours. And even though we have interesting collaborations and synergies with those other programmes, we are still all in the competition for the best students. To stay among the top neuroscience training centres in Tübingen, and Germany overall, will be a task of its own.

What is unique for the GTC is a combination of very diverse master’s programmes, which cover a wide range of topics in neuroscience, as well as the opportunity to continue on to our PhD programme. As far as I know, we are the only training centre at Tübingen University where you can have a coherent postgraduate career from the very first to the very last day, before embarking on a further research career as a postdoc. This continuity is something that I would like to improve.

We could deepen the integration and interaction between the different master’s programmes. So far, students share a few general neuroscience lectures and can choose electives from other programmes. What I would like to see is project-based teaching being implemented: to make small groups of students, where each student comes from a different programme, and give them a problem or a project they could work on throughout their master’s studies. There is a lot of potential for bringing people from different backgrounds together and allowing them to learn beyond their boundaries. The PhD programme could, of course, profit from more professional training, directly related to the methods our students use but beyond the scope of what one lab could teach.

Finally, we need to strengthen our alumni network. The GTC is now 20 years old, and we have fantastic graduates from our master’s and PhD programmes now working all over the world. Last year Horst Herbert and Cornelius Schwarz invited the first group for an alumni meeting, primarily addressing those graduates who still work in academia. We need to make these meetings regular, every 2 to 3 years, and include people who left scientific careers for work in the private sector.

Are you planning to continue your academic work?

First of all, the job to do now is being the head of the GTC. I applied for this job not to be a researcher for the next 30 years but because I wanted to organize and develop this study programme here. It was a very natural thing that I thought about. If I was no longer a researcher in the next 3-5 years from now, it would definitely be a pity, I would be sad about it, but my priorities are very clear, personally as well. I can easily see myself here in 10 years and devoting my time completely and only to this study programme. It’s extremely attractive and interesting.

Having said that, at the moment there are two research projects that I would like to continue, dependent on the demands and experiences here. This combination of doing focused research, one or two projects, and the bigger work at the GTC is very interesting for me. I also hope to continue with research because I think it is very helpful to be a researcher, even if just for a few hours a week, when organizing this training centre and when teaching. The administration of this centre was never fully administrative! People here have a lot of practical experience. Even Horst Herbert had his research group and biology lab during his first years of the GTC. Being able to offer a lab rotation from time to time keeps you in contact with students from another perspective, something more than just being an office person or only the lecturer in the lecture hall.

Can you tell me, from your experience, how does the teaching or studying neuroscience differ from when you were a PhD student at the GTC?

I would say, not so much. I already saw excellent courses and teaching here with a lot of interaction. What already made this programme unique at that time, is that we have small groups of students and that most of the lectures are offered more or less exclusively to our students. It was the case 20 years ago, it was the case when I joined the programme as a PhD, and it still is the same way. The biggest advantage here was that each lecture was in fact a small group teaching with not more than 30 students. That was a very new experience for me, being used to lectures with 120 students sitting in the lecture hall in my undergraduate studies, and lecturers starting their programme with an announcement that they don’t accept questions.

But here students always get in contact with the lecturer, always interact, always ask questions and get answers. Or they get questions from their lecturers because the students already know better, just from another perspective, and everyone is open to that. Of course, topics have changed, we have more disciplines covered in the programme. The general characteristic of the programme – being very personal with very close relationships between students and lecturers, and a lot of active communication between them – that is as good today as it was 20 years ago.

What do you think is important as a skill for students but is not taught at the university? Both in general and in particular for the GTC.

Social interation and teamwork. All our training, exams, grading, all of that is based on individual performance in comparison to the others. 

Photo credits: Akshay Markanday.

Even if we offer group projects within the lectures and seminars, nevertheless, the whole perspective of the university, study programme, is still individual performance. That makes sense because students are going through the training, so they get a grade and feedback at the end. But what is automatically, naturally neglected is how you build up a working team and how you interact with others in a way that you throw different competences and performances together and do not focus on what is your individual share in the end.

Teamwork abilities are becoming more and more important in academia as well as in other jobs, and are something that is extremely difficult to teach. It is something you have to experience, that’s definitely something that you have to learn by doing. It wouldn’t make sense to give a lecture on teambuilding where the students get graded for their individual performance during an exam. As I have already mentioned, project-based learning is something we can form small student groups for, and let them work for a longer time.

What are students expected to learn during their time at the GTC?

Neuroscience has changed a lot during the last 20 years. So we are, too, now more methods-biased than before. I think this is an advantage for the students – they learn skills, not just particular topics. In combination, our three master’s programmes provide a good overview of  state-of-the-art neuroscience. However, the programmes have become largely separated, thus it is now harder for our students to get a grip of this large picture.

Students from the behavioural neuroscience programme are expected to graduate with a good understanding of how the human central nervous system interacts with its environment. Molecular neuroscience students will have a completely different focus – they are looking at this process at a much higher resolution, trying to understand how it works. And the neural information processing students should not forget that knowing their methods and algorithms very well is not yet enough, as their primary question of interest still lies in the nervous system, even if they expect to build autonomous cars when they graduate.

Do students still need university degrees, though? With the 4th industrial revolution, the skill set required on the job market is quite different from the classical university degree.

Universities and academic training programmes are a bit traditional, which does sound like a disadvantage when you look at the fast developments in the industry. On the other hand, it stabilizes these institutions, and makes them stronger against short-term fashions. Yes, there is a lot of information available and one can easily attain as much information as a university degree could provide. But there is also a lot of wrong information out there. Getting your training on the free market, you will always run into the problem that you, and people who want to employ you, don’t know what your degree is worth. If someone shows up with an online-acquired degree in, for example, “Machine learning, advanced level 3”, it does not tell me much. I then need to invest time to see what they can really accomplish. However, if you have an official degree, especially while you are still a young student, it provides enough information on what your capabilities are after graduating, and it ensures that the degree was obtained via a transparent system.

Thank you for the interview! Good luck with your new job!

Aiste Ambrase is a GTC doctoral student and a member of a work group “Innovative Neuroimaging in Psychiatry” led by Prof. Birgit Derntl in Tübingen.


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