"We have to keep a lot of balls in the air all at once"

6 December 2014

The newly created JUGGLE – The network of Junior Group Leaders in Life Sciences at JGU provides researchers with a platform to discuss aspects of their subject but also acts as forum through which the difficult situations facing junior group leaders in the German educational landscape can be examined. In December 2014, JUGGLE invited participants to its first Mainz symposium to discuss future prospects for young researchers.

The President of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) is certainly impressed. "With this you have already scored a huge success," says Professor Georg Krausch at the opening of the JUGGLE Symposium. "This response to your first event is really amazing."

The attendance in the Staudinger lecture hall in the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research on the Gutenberg Campus more than justifies his words. Many have been drawn by the title of the conference: "JUGGLE YOUR CAREER – Perspectives for Scientists."

Some of those present may also have come to hear the talk by a Nobel laureate. Professor Harald zur Hausen of the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg has been invited as a guest to talk about his research. But he has also other reasons for being here. "I want to support JUGGLE," says the 2008 Nobel laureate at the edge of the symposium. "I think this project is an excellent idea." Then he furrows his brow. "But I'm afraid I don't have any final answers to the questions raised by the symposium either."

Praise for JUGGLE

And that is the situation in a nutshell. But JUGGLE has a lot of support. The university administration and those responsible at the Mainz University Medical Center are happy to support the network. "JUGGLE deals with a current problem that is now occurring at many levels," emphasizes Krausch. But is a solution in sight?

It was in September 2013 that a number of junior research group leaders got together to create JUGGLE, the Junior Group Leaders in Life Sciences at JGU network. They come from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, from the Mainz University Medical Center, the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research, and the Institute of Molecular Biology (IMB). They all conduct research in one form or another into the extensive field of life sciences.

"The word JUGGLE is itself a good way of describing our situation", explains Dr. Christian Berger of JGU's Institute of Genetics. "We have to keep a lot of balls in the air all at once: career, research, personal life." Dr. Christian Berger, Dr. Robin White of the Institute of Physiology, Dr. Ana Rogulja-Ortmann of the Institute of Genetics, and Dr. Sven Horke of the Institute of Pharmacology have been elected coordinators of JUGGLE. Prior to the symposium, these four dedicated young researchers found the time to talk about the aims of the network.

A new platform

Until recently, the junior research group leaders in the field of life sciences at Mainz had no representative voice. They were barely perceived as a group. "We wanted to change that," says Dr. Robin White. "We wanted to create a platform where we could interact." – "At the very beginning we were not sure who we should appeal to," remembers Dr. Ana Rogulja-Ortmann.

As the register of members of the university had no special entry for junior research group leaders, the JUGGLE founders had to compile the corresponding addresses themselves and they wrote to 500 potentially interested colleagues, of whom more than 50 joined JUGGLE. Several new members have also since joined. They have all completed their doctorates, run their own research groups, and supervise doctoral candidates. They are the backbone of the so-called non-professorial teaching staff; they are young academics who are pushing back the boundaries of research and are also responsible for keeping a large proportion of the teaching and training of young research talents going.

"However, we all know that about 70 percent of us will not find permanent employment at an institution of higher education," explains White. "There is only little opportunity for most of us to have a career at university." He also knows that JUGGLE cannot do anything to change the job situation. And yet the network can still help.

Does the system need to change?

"Work group leaders need to be visible as a group, they need to be able to find one another," emphasizes Dr. Sven Horke. JUGGLE is designed to promote academic exchange. "Some work on a project without knowing that a colleague is researching a very similar topic, and is probably using equipment that would help them with their own undertaking." The network is intended to create links that will not only help save work and money but also make it easier to conduct research.

"We also offer talks and courses dealing with issues of interest to our members," adds Rogulja-Ortmann. These often deal with career opportunities outside the academic world. One invited scientist spoke about the standardized Good Laboratory Practices (GLP) used by commercial businesses that differ considerably from those at university. "We always have an eye on what our members need." A mentoring program is also being developed.

A planned, predicable career is what all JUGGLE members want. To accompany their first symposium, they also held a podium discussion with eminent panel members discussing the subject of "Future prospects for junior research group leaders at German universities – do we need a new system?"

"You have to realize we have a system where many start at the bottom but only a few manage to get to the top," points out Professor Ulrich Förstermann, Chief Scientific Officer of the Mainz University Medical Center, at the very start of the discussion. "You reach several points where you have to make a decision on whether or not it is the right time for you to leave this pyramid." Such departures are an essential element of the system: "It is our task to train people; we simply cannot provide all with employment."

The principal problem remains

Krausch sees things similarly. He does point out that a certain number of jobs are to be created at the non-professorial teaching staff and professorship levels. "But even so, the principal problem is still there." Not everyone will find room on the next rung up on the career ladder.

Professor Hans-Christian Pape of the German Council of Science and Humanities, who also spoke at the JUGGLE symposium, recommends that this system which creates problems for postdocs in particular needs to be made more transparent. "We should advise our employees on the opportunities that are also available to them outside of the university system." The German Council of Science and Humanities has also advocated the creation of more professorships and jobs for non-professorial teaching staff.

A lively discussion ensued at the first JUGGLE symposium. Ideas were presented and discussed but, of course, no easy and quick solutions could be proposed as the problem is simply too fundamental. But young Mainz junior research group leaders in the life sciences now have their own platform. JUGGLE has made itself heard – that at least is a start.