A scientific success story

The International Max Planck Research School on Astrophysics is celebrating its 20th birthday these days

December 06, 2021

Twenty years ago, the IMPRS on Astrophysics was founded in Garching, and it is not only the figures that show that the foundations were laid for a scientific success story. Consequently, it’s about time to take stock. Here, former companions recall the beginnings, directors and lecturers explain the value of the IMPRS for their institution, and doctoral students report on the advantages of the Research School.

The main goal of the "International Max Planck Research School on Astrophysics at the University of Munich", IMPRS on Astrophysics for short, is to train highly qualified young scientists from all over the world. And after twenty years and around 350 successfully completed doctorates, it can be said: This promise has been fulfilled. But until then, it was quite a burdensome journey.

Joachim Trümper, who was Managing Director of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE) from 1998 to 2001, remembers the beginnings: „The idea of such an institution was announced by Hubert Markl, then President of the Max Planck Society (MPG), at the MPG's 50th anniversary celebration in Göttingen on February 26, 1998. I was intrigued by the idea, and two weeks later, I wrote a letter to the astrophysical institutes and research groups around Garching and Munich. In this letter,I proposed to establish an International Graduate School that would increase their training capacity and attract students from all over the world“.

On November 12, 1999, Trümper submitted the first proposal to the Max Planck Society; the Ludwig Maximilian University (LMU), the Technical University (TU), the MPI for Astrophysics (MPA), the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and the MPE were to participate. „It then took a while before agreement was reached between the MPG and the German Rectors' Conference (HRK) on the concept and name of the new facility (IMPRS)“, Trümper reports. The final proposal followed on June 27, 2000, and was approved three months later, along with nine other International Max Planck Research Schools from various scientific fields. And just one year later, the first round of 23 students from 12 countries began their doctoral projects.

All aspects of astrophysics are taught in the lectures

One of these IMPRS pioneers: Jens Chluba. Now working as a professor of cosmology at the University of Manchester, he remembers his time as an IMPRS student very well: „The togetherness and mutual motivation was something very special at IMPRS. And that is something I have always tried to continue in my further career: Bringing people together and creating a kind of togetherness. Learning together and learning from each other. Supporting each other. These are values that IMPRS exemplifies.“

IMPRS as a career starter: Jens Chluba was part of the first class of IMPRS on Astrophysics. He is now Professor of Cosmology at the University of Manchester.

Chluba has particularly fond memories of the wide range of lectures and seminars, as lecturers from all participating institutions teach at the IMPRS, giving doctoral students a very good overview of a wide variety of astrophysics subjects - from stars and the interstellar medium to cosmology, supernova remnants and black holes.

„The thematically broad range of courses gives the doctoral students a better basic knowledge“, confirms Ralf Bender. He can be seen as a link between the MPI and the university, since he is both director of the Optical and Interpretative Astronomy Department at the MPE and dean of the Faculty of Physics at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich. „The introduction of our IMPRS on Astrophysics has led to several positive effects right from the start“, he says. „Thanks to the IMPRS, a steadily increasing number of international applicants came to Munich. The joint events and social activities strengthened the cohesion within the doctoral students, and last but not least, the establishment of the IMPRS laid the foundation for cooperations and networks that will last for a long time to come“, says Bender.

Paola Andreani, Head of the ESO Science Office, also sees the opportunity to establish cross-institutional networks as a particularly great advantage of the IMPRS. She has only been a member since 2018 and is therefore not familiar in detail with the reasons why ESO joined the Garching Graduate School in 2001, she admits. It is a fact, however, that ESO benefits enormously from closer cooperation with Max Planck and the universities. „It helped to improve cooperation with surrounding institutes at Garching Campus. And not at least due to IMPRS, ESO Staff now better can cooperate with Cluster of Excellence projects, funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG)“, says Andreani and adds: „ESO is not an academic institution, yet faculty members mentioned a wish to supervise PhD students“. The IMPRS made this possible; between three and four doctoral students are supervised by the European Southern Observatory each year.

For many, the IMPRS is the start of a successful career in science

To date, a total of 4251 students from 103 countries have applied for postgraduate positions at the IMPRS. 350 have successfully completed their doctorates and many have gone on to successful careers in science. At present, 108 students are working on their doctoral projects in various phases; the vast majority of them, 83 percent, are doing their doctorates at LMU. 14 percent are doing their doctorates at TU Munich and 3 percent at other European universities. The young researchers conduct their research at the institutes involved in the IMPRS, but submit their doctorates to the participating universities, which then also award the doctorate.

Some IMPRS students get the opportunity to do their work at the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile, which is operated by ESO.

Of the 25 IMPRS students per year, most are supervised at MPE, closely followed by the neighbouring institute MPI for Astrophysics. The director of the MPI, Eiichiro Komatsu, particularly praises the IMPRS recruiting process: „When I became director at MPA in August 2012, I learned about the existence of IMPRS for the first time and soon considered it as a real game changer, especially in regard of recruiting students. I personally benefited from this system as I recruited students from all over the world and found some promising talents, who took on important roles within my research group“, says Komatsu.

When selecting IMPRS candidates, it can happen that several institutes compete for a particularly qualified applicant, or that several departments within an institute are interested in a certain candidate, Komatsu says. On average, the MPA supervises about eight IMPRS students per year, which is „more than enough“ according to the director. Otherwise, the MPA could no longer guarantee sufficient supervision.

Of course, even after 20 years, there are still things to improve, says Komatsu. For example, students have complained that some lectures are too dry; instead of frontal teaching, they would like to see more interactive elements. There is also room for improvement in the transformation of lectures into online courses, which became necessary as a result of the Corona pandemic. However, Komatsu emphasises that this is more a case of complaining at a high level. „In general, the feedback I receive is very positive. And I'm for sure not the only one with this view, but the IMPRS is a terrific invention and I'm very grateful to be part of it“.

„Doing a doctorate with IMPRS is a unique experience"

Apparently, the participating institutions or their representatives all look back very graciously on the past 20 years. But how do the current students rate the conditions of the IMPRS? Riccardo Seppi, who started his doctoral thesis at MPE in 2019, can answer this question. „Doing a doctorate with IMPRS is a unique experience, where you can work in close contact with some of the best experts in different fields. Students working with observations can have access to the world's largest telescopes. In some cases, there is also the possibility to travel to these facilities and perform the observations ourselves“, he says. Additionally, they organize regular meetings, where they can discuss their progress with thesis committee members and get „very useful suggestions“, whereas the committee also consists of external scientists, and „the possibility to discuss our projects in detail with them is an amazing chance to develop as researchers“, says Seppi.

Group photo of the 2021 class of the IMPRS on Astrophysics

Another highlight he mentions is the IMPRS symposium, which takes place twice a year and is organised by the doctoral students themselves. Here, the students give scientific presentations and report on their current projects, receiving detailed feedback from a consortium of experienced scientists: „A great chance of improving presentation skills and learning about new science“, says Seppi.

As one of two annualy elected IMPRS student representatives, Seppi also knows very well what fears, worries or problems are currently on the minds of the doctoral students. The Corona pandemic in particular was anything but good for the salvation of the soul, he reveals. But while the fact that all lectures were now only held online was still halfway bearable, almost any kind of joint activities had to be cancelled when the pandemic restrictions began. And this hit the students particularly hard, because it meant the end of what was probably the most important tradition of all, as Seppi explains: „We usually meet on Friday evening to celebrate the end of the week and spend some time together – in typical Munich fashion: with beers!“

Almost every Max Planck Institute is now part of an IMPRS

The IMPRS thus combines excellent research conditions with a strong sense of belonging within the student body. No wonder, then, that the number of doctorate programmes continues to rise. There are now 65 of these research schools in the Max Planck cosmos, and most of the 86 Max Planck Institutes are involved in an international doctoral school. And so far, an end to the successful programme is not in sight: in 2019, the Max Planck Society decided to continue funding the IMPRS-on-Astrophysics initiative until at least 2025.

A decision that Paola Caselli, spokesperson of the IMPRS and Managing Director of the MPE, is visibly pleased about: „The IMPRS attracts brilliant young scientists from all over the world and bring them together in vibrant institutes. This combination allows the vital exchange of new ideas and the building of skills which will open many new doors for the future career of the students.“

Werner Becker even goes one step further. „At the end of the day, the IMPRS does not have to hide from the doctorate programmes of the large American elite universities“, says Becker, and if anyone can seriously assess that, it is him. After all, Becker has not only been the coordinator of the IMPRS on Astrophysics since day one, but was also decisively involved in successfully establishing the IMPRS more than 20 years ago. Together with Joachim Trümper and Ralf Bender, he developed the basic structures and concepts of the Garching IMPRS and ensured the necessary continuity over the 20 years that such an international programme needs. In this follow-up interview, he talks in detail about the beginnings, curious anecdotes and where the IMPRS could head in the future.

Tobias Herrmann

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