What does a professor or a postdoc do at an advanced study institute?

We are about to start 10 months at the renowned Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, a place where academics go to concentrate on their research and to find inspiration across the academy. You might think you have to be advanced yourself to land a spot here, but that is not the case. There are postdocs here too, like Hassan Salem, normally of Emory University in Nicole Gerardo’s lab.

In our first 10 days here we have almost entirely concentrated on improving our German and on getting settled. We have met sociologists from France and Michigan, artists from Chicago, novelists from Kenya, historians from Turkey and Boston, and just now a few biologists we already knew.  What is the point of traveling around the world to do things we could do at home?

Potsdam, tearing down DDR remnants, on a German class field trip.

Well, the truth is we couldn’t really do them at home. We could not concentrate so fully on ideas. We could not learn from others so different from ourselves. We could not skip all the things at home that seemed so important and do something different. This is what our new leader here, the first woman at the helm, Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger said to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on Wednesday 29 August 2018.

Here we get space in an institute that complements our home universities. I might learn better to write from novelists, or historians. I might learn things I could not imagine from my colleagues of the year, here. How many things like this are there? I don’t know, but this one might be unique for its mix across the disciplines.

Thus far I have been humbled by all the scholarship that surrounds me and the challenges of German, from prepositions that sometimes take the dative and sometimes the accusative. But this struggle should be positive, not daunting. By the end of the year my German will be better and the better parts of two books will be written, I hope.

The things we learn first are about buying tickets for public transportation, how to use our cell phones, and the complexities of German recycling. I have learned the etiquette of walking a dog, unfortunately on a leash unlike many German dogs. You don’t pet other people’s dogs, and it is best if all ignore each other, to the disappointment of our eager Zeus.

German class coffee break, Wiko

I asked the wise Jennifer Fewell how to make the most out of the year. She recommended that I forget about all my earlier projects and find people very different from me to learn from. I think I’ll take the second half of that advice. She recommended bikes, but we have a pup who walks and doesn’t ride. So remember to tailor any advice to oneself and your circumstances.

No words for this horror.

I walked today to Gleis 17, the track from which many Jews were transported today to their deaths in my father’s lifetime. For me, being in Berlin will be a time of remembering, of witnessing, of learning. I hope it will be a time of growth and intellectual discovery.

How does one learn about such things? From this blog, from talking to people, and from being unafraid to apply! I’ll be posting more on the life in an Advanced Study Institute.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Managing an academic career, Sabbatical. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What does a professor or a postdoc do at an advanced study institute?

  1. Scott Sakaluk says:

    What a wonderful opportunity! Anne and I visited Berlin on our first sabbatical shortly not that long after the fall of the wall; an incredible place, made more interesting because Anne is German whose parents fled East Germany, and so could offer real context. I took a course in German at Illinois State, and another as part of a Humboldt scholarship that repaid itself many times over. I won’t pretend I’m fluent, but truly believe that learning another language gives you insight in a culture that you otherwise you would not get. Loved your talk at ISBE and Dave’s Hamilton address. Cheers, Scott Sakaluk

    The students and I here love your Blog

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