Nuclear fusion: Creating artificial stars

Too little does the public hear about nuclear fusion — a process in which two light nuclei collide at high speed and fuse into a heavier nucleus — which is surprising considering the need for alternative energy sources and fusion’s promise to deliver limitless clean and safe energy. If the word fusion brings anything to the mind of the wider public, this is likely related to ITER, a research reactor under construction in France that has repeatedly made the news by over blowing its budget and being substantially behind schedule. Is this all there is to know about fusion? By all means, no. “Let there be light – the 100 years journey to fusion” brings the audience on a fascinating journey across time and ideas into the complex landscape of past and present fusion research.

The documentary, directed by Mila Aung-Thwin and Van Ryoko, was released in March 2017, and explores the world of fusion mainly through the eyes of four of its protagonists, each bringing a different point of view.

Credit: Heath Cairns

Mark Henderson works at ITER, a reactor based on a tokamak design, in which a powerful magnetic field confines the plasma in a toroidal shape. ITER is poised to become the biggest fusion reactor in the world, and its goal is to demonstrate that fusion at the power-plant scale is feasible. At ITER, Henderson is in charge of the systems heating the plasma.

Eric Lerner develops a fusion concept called dense plasma focus, in which large electrical currents run through the plasma, harnessing its natural instabilities to confine and compress it; this type of reactor has the advantage of being much smaller and cheaper than other designs, but technologically is not as advanced. “The first error of the governments in the 1970s was to put all their eggs in the tokamak basket”, he comments. “But actually we still don’t know which route will lead to practical and economical fusion: you should invest not in ideas you think will work, but in all ideas you can’t prove won’t work”.

Michel Laberge is the founder of General Fusion, a private company developing a fusion power device that, instead of employing magnetic fields, uses pistons to compress liquid metal surrounding the plasma to create fusion conditions. “It’s pistons and its’ rings, it’s metal and pipes, it’s plumbing,” he explains. “Turning that into a power plant would actually be not that complicated. I have a saying, I tell my engineers: if you can’t find it at Home Depot it doesn’t go in the machine.”

Finally, Sibylle Gunter is the scientific director of Wendelstein 7-X, an experimental reactor in Germany that is the largest stellarator device in the world. Stellarators, which have worst plasma confinement than tokamaks but can run continuously — an important advantage for future power plants — are based on complicated coils optimized to generate a specific magnetic field configuration. Although stellarators are technologically behind tokamaks, some believe it is stellarators that will eventually deliver fusion on the grid.

The documentary takes the audience right at the beginning of the history of fusion, to the time when, in 1939, Hans Bethe understood the proton–proton reaction that powers stars. A decade later, in the USSR, a self-educated Red Army sergeant posted to a remote island suggested a concept that would become the tokamak; physicist Andrei Sakharov completed the projects for the first reactor in 1950. That same year, the claim (then proven fraudulent) that fusion had been achieved in Argentina inspired Lyman Spitzer, an American physicist, to develop the stellarator. The importance of international collaboration to achieve fusion was recognized already during the cold war (it helped that fusion has no military applications), and in 1985 Gorbachev and Reagan agreed to start a collaborative international project to develop fusion energy, laying the basis for the ITER project.

Among scientists, a period of tremendous enthusiasm in the 1960s was followed by a decade of doubt and skepticism when it was realized that the problem was more complex than initially thought. In the 1980s, on the wake of a new wave of enthusiasm, it was believed that fusion would be on the grid within 50 years, and indeed until 2000 advances were fast. But to take the next step a new machine was needed, bigger, more complex: ITER, which is likely the most complex machine ever built.  I know I will be retired by the time ITER is successful” says Henderson, “so I’m like the guy building a cathedral, who knows he is gonna […] spend his entire career putting bricks together, but he will never see the end piece.

Indeed, ITER is more than a decade behind schedule — first plasma was originally planned for 2016 — and several billion dollars over budget. In a management assessment back in 2013 the problem was pinned down as poor management, ill-defined decision-making processes and poor communications within the project. In 2015 a new Director General was appointed, Bernard Bigot. ITER now has a new date for first plasma, Christmas 2025. “I think ITER will probably work; it will demonstrate that fusion is doable,” says Laberge. “They are gonna blow their budget and their schedule big time, it will burn money at twice the rate you need to, but it will get built and it will work, and this will give a big shot in the arm of fusion.”

One point everybody seems to agree on is that more funding is needed to develop fusion. “The more money you put in, the faster the return. And we have really being putting in peanuts,” comments Henderson. “Fusion is about 20 billions for 20 years. One billion a year. One fancy bridge a year. Peanuts! Let’s do it!” says Laberge. “How long it will take to achieve fusion? At current levels of financing, it will take approximately the age of the universe,” concludes Lerner.

With its beautiful images, helpful animations and an engaging soundtrack, the documentary, which is all narrated through interviews and original clips, is informative and enjoyable. It does not shy away from the challenges and doubts about the feasibility of a complex project such as ITER, but keeps a positive outlook.  It is a welcome reminder that achieving fusion is an extremely important goal, and all potential avenues need to be explored. Whether expert on fusion or curious onlooker, in “Let there be light” there is something for everyone.

The story behind the story: Remember

This week Futures is delighted to welcome A. J. Lee with her story Remember — a cautionary tale about cryogenics. Here, we discover what inspired this piece — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Remember

Despite the scepticism about cryonics, people have been freezing themselves in the hope of future resuscitation since the mid-1960s. We don’t yet know enough about the human brain to revive these frozen people. And we certainly don’t know enough to create brain-accessible memory storage that mimics real memories. But it seems likely that the two could go hand-in-hand.

And, it seems to me, one of the two is more likely to be adopted quickly: the one that helps us, personally and immediately. If you could have Remembers, wouldn’t you? Of course, people are desperate to live forever — but who would want their loved ones to be the first to be thawed? Knowing how the first version of any current tech product looks alongside its later version, and knowing you’ve only got one shot at it … wouldn’t you rather wait?
In 2016, a court ruled that a 14-year-old girl, who was dying of cancer, could be cryogenically frozen. I read that piece then, and since then the ideas in it have been percolating in my (warm, unpreserved, entirely fallible) brain. The same questions that I think we all ask when we hear about cryonics (Will she ever be thawed? What will the world look like when she is? Is this even possible, or is it a scam?), but also a new-to-me thought: she was so young, young enough that unlike many of the other people who turn to cryonics on their deathbeds her peers may still be alive when she is revived. What will they be like when she returns?
These two separate lines of thought — the scientific one about all the other possibilities brought up by a more thorough understanding of the human brain, and the human one brought up when we apply those scientific concepts — brought me to Jen and Dan’s story. Just like many of us today, Dan lives in a space in between technologies — he has Remembers, but he isn’t quite sure how to use them, and he’s aware of cryonics without fully knowing what’s possible. How could he not long for a clear representation, a clear reminder, of his own half-remembered youth?

Interactions: John Hammersley

After a PhD in theoretical physics (specifically, holography and the ADS/CFT correspondence), John left academia and later co-founded Overleaf in 2012. He has been developing Overleaf ever since to bring it to more and more users.

What did you train in? What are you doing now?

My background is in mathematics and physics; I completed an MPhys at Warwick in 2004, before heading up to Durham for my PhD, which I completed in 2008. I then moved out of academia into industry, working for Ultra PRT, the company behind the world’s first driverless taxi system. I joined the company as a research scientist, and my role later broadened out to be bid manager for the various projects the company was involved in.

How did Overleaf start?

When joining Ultra PRT, I was lucky enough to be mentored by Prof. Martin Lowson, a former rocket scientist and aeronautical engineer. He founded Ultra PRT out of Bristol University in the mid-nineties, and always maintained a strong link with academia, encouraging us to write up and share our research into large scale driverless taxi systems with the wider community. This involved collaborations both internally and with others at partner universities/organizations, and it was whilst collaborating on these research papers that we discovered Etherpad, a new browser-based collaboration tool. This made it easy for us to share and collaborate on notes, but because we typically use LaTeX for our papers, it wasn’t quite what we needed.

So one weekend, my co-founder Dr John Lees-Miller built the prototype for Overleaf (then called WriteLaTeX), which allowed us all to collaborate in the browser on LaTeX documents, and would generate a PDF output by compiling the LaTeX on a server. We also found that this greatly lowered the barriers to collaborating with others who were new to LaTeX, as there was nothing to install — all that’s needed is a web browser. Usage of the site continued to grow through word-of-mouth and being featured on sites such as HackerNews, and in late 2012 we decided to found our own company and work on Overleaf full time!

Who is using Overleaf today?

Today over four million people worldwide are using Overleaf! These range from students taking their first steps with LaTeX, through to large scale collaborations between hundreds of the world’s leading scientists. I’m always amazed at the wide range of uses people find for LaTeX and Overleaf. For example, one of the first projects on Overleaf that wasn’t one of our research papers was a set of wedding invitations!

We also see Overleaf helping to extend LaTeX out into fields where it’s less common, such as in the humanities and social sciences (for example, see this a short interview with Brian Lucey, Professor of Finance at Trinity College, Dublin, who started using LaTeX through Overleaf and is now part of our Advisor programme).

We’re also collaborating with partners in the publishing industry to try to help streamline the authoring, submission and publication workflows for journals and preprint servers, by providing updated templates and simple submission links. Overleaf is the natural place for authors and editors to be able to check that all the files for a submission are present, and that there are no compilation errors within a manuscript. Because of the built-in error reporting, and friendly interface, it also helps when there are any problems to resolve!

What I personally find most exciting is that Overleaf is helping students create and share their work in ways not easily possibly before. For example, the ‘Nano Ninjas’ — a group of 7th and 8th Graders in the US — used Overleaf to write up the engineering notebook from their school Robotics challenge! They won an award for their notebook, and have shared it in full on Overleaf as a template for future students to see and take inspiration from!

You can read more about the Nano Ninjas here, and some of their members also went on to form ‘The Three Musketeers’. It’s amazing to see, and hopefully provides an inspiration to future researchers and scientists everywhere 🙂

 What are the main challenges when starting a company? Do you have any advice to share?

There’s a lot I could talk about here! Although, I’m a bit reluctant to start by listing out challenges; you have to be somewhat naively optimistic to start a company, and focusing too much on any perceived challenges can be (wrongly) off-putting. So I’ll focus on advice instead.

If four points is too many, just read point four: don’t run out of money!

  1. Take everyone’s advice with a pinch of salt: we all give advice based on our own experiences, and in the early days it’s easy to get side-tracked by advice that’s well-meaning, but not relevant for you.
  2. Talk to people about your idea as early as you can, but don’t be put off if the first people you talk to seem a bit confused as to what you’re proposing. It’s natural, as you’re still developing the idea, and it’ll help highlight where you need to be able to explain your idea more clearly. Early on, you’ll need positive reaction for motivation, early adoption for validation, and any critical feedback for development. But remember to take any advice they give you with a pinch of salt 🙂
  3. Focus on solving the immediate problems that you need to get done to get yourself to the next stage (whether that’s finding a co-founder, building the MVP, or getting feedback from your first users), and don’t worry too much about things beyond that. At the start this is focusing one week or one month at a time, and certainly no more than six months ahead. If you focus too much on the long term, you’ll find it takes you too long to get the important stuff done now, and you’ll run out of time/money.
  4. Finally, and most importantly, it’s the CEO’s main job to make sure you don’t run out of money — whoever the CEO is in your founding team needs know how long you have with initial money you’ve saved/raised to get started, and needs to focus on getting the next funding secured before this runs out. If you run out of money, it doesn’t matter how close you are to solving any of the other problems; that’s usually game over.

I also wrote on a similar topic in a blog for ErrantScience, and in my Reddit AMA from a few years ago. If you’re interested in my longer thoughts on this, those are both good follow-on reads.

If you are starting a company, good luck, and feel free to reach out to me directly if you think I can help! If it’s in the #TechForGood space, I’d also recommend talking to the Bethnal Green Ventures team; they’re very friendly, and have a lot of experience helping start-ups develop in the very early stages. We were part of their summer cohort in 2013, and I still help out as a mentor and alumni!

Do you have a favourite Overleaf tip(s)?

If you’re at a university, check if your institution has a site license for Overleaf! You can see the list of institutions here, and if they do, you’ll be able to get a free upgrade to an Overleaf Professional account through that license!

My other top tip isn’t for Overleaf specifically, but can greatly help if you can’t remember the LaTeX command for a symbol — you can use detexify to find it! Simply draw the symbol, and it’ll give you the corresponding LaTeX command!

Finally, if you’re new to LaTeX itself, we’ve put together this short introduction which can be completed in about 30 minutes, to help you get started. Good luck, and if you do use Overleaf, we’d love to hear from you!


Alive in the universe

This is a guest post by Sarah Hiddleston 

Nature Middle East has an exciting contribution to the grande dame of art events –The Venice Biennale. For more than 120 years the Biennale has attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors to the floating city, whose sweeping squares, crumbling palazzos and beautiful churches play host to the world’s foremost cutting-edge creative minds. Now in its 58th iteration, it takes as its theme May you live in interesting times and promises to be a showcase of what its artistic director Ralph Rugoff describes as “art’s potential for looking into things that we do not already know”.

Nature Middle East’s film-short charts the contribution of Syrian artist Issam Kourbaj as he examines the nature of reality, life, death, migration and the passage of time. Together with the British poet Ruth Padel, Kourbaj will open a 28-day exhibition entitled Alive in the Universe with a three-piece performance installation at the Palazzo Pesaro Papafava on May 8. The film, shot last year in Kourbaj’s studio in Cambridge, will be shown alongside the installation.

Alive in the Universe is a creative take on the wonder and anguish of existence including some of the most perplexing questions in science. Masterminded by co-curators Caroline Wiseman and David Baldry, it was inspired by Albert Einstein’s dictum that “art is the expression of the profoundest thoughts in the simplest way”. The exhibition seeks to challenge and deepen our understanding of life and death, gender and procreation, the cosmos, water, dark matter, technology and time among others.

Watch: the video

The story behind the story: Without access

Futures is delighted to welcome back Deborah Walker this week with Without access, her story about the need to stay connected. Regular readers will be familiar with Deborah’s work (there are links to her other stories at the foot of this post), but you can find out more about her writing at her website or by following her on Twitter. Here, she reveals the inspiration behind her latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Without access

I like my phone, but my teenage daughter really likes it. It’s so important to her. Access is everything. When my teenage niece was denied Wi-Fi access on a recent holiday to Croatia (the brochure had promised access), she had a meltdown. For many of the younger generation access to the Internet has become part of their identity.

Concerns about the time we all spend on our electronic devices have recently resurfaced. Are we enslaved to access? What does this mean for our productivity? For our mental health?

It’s not just parents who are concerned. Half of teenagers think they spend too much time on social media. Teenagers also think that parents are spending too much time on their phones. (But let’s gloss over that.)

People can’t seem to stop checking their phones. A recent survey reveals people checking their phones in the most inappropriate situations: during sex (7%), on the toilet (72%) and even during a funeral (11%). Nearly two-thirds of people said they felt anxious when not connected to the Wi-Fi.

I seem to recall that the social-media giants are implanting measure to help us manage these issues, although I don’t recall what those measures are.

These issues inspired my story. I take my teenage hero to a planet where access is denied. A nightmare planet, inhabited by underground dwellers. Bored out of her tiny mind, my hero goes where she shouldn’t go: into the night of the living dead, except the dead aren’t flesh and blood, they are personalities, and they have access to a horrifying amount of data.

More Futures stories by Deborah:

Contagion in tranquil shades of grey | When the Cold comes | Good for something | Face in the dark | Sybil | Surrendered human | First foot | Glass future | Ovoids | Green future | Auntie Merkel | The frozen hive of her mind

Announcing the India Science Media Fellows 2019

Nature India and the Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance (India Alliance) have chosen the first batch of India Science Media Fellows (2019), who will receive a fellowship of INR one lakh each over the next six months to publish or broadcast media stories on life sciences, biomedicine, application-based or basic biological research, and health.

Here is the first batch of ISMF Fellows, chosen through a highly competitive process that invited applications from across India:


Aditya Bidwai

Aditya Bidwai

Aditya Bidwai, Chief Sub Editor and Web presenter at with the India Today Group in New Delhi. Aditya has been covering global environment issues, politics, medicine, and government policies for over seven years now.

Archana Jyoti


Archana Jyoti, Special Correspondent, The Pioneer newspaper, New Delhi. Archana has been covering the health, science, environment, and social welfare beats for media houses such as Press Trust of India, Asian Age and The Pioneer for more than 15 years.

Muhammad Sulhaf K


Muhammed Sulhaf K is a Sub Editor with Madhyamam Daily in Calicut, Kerala. He has over a decade of experience in communicating science in the regional Malayalam language media houses.

Paramananda Barman

Paramananda Barman

Paramananda Barman, Resident Editor, Research Matters, Gubbi Labs, New Delhi. Paramananda also manages their Assamese language section. He writes on life sciences and covers diverse areas such as health, medicine, ecology and environment and applied biology.

Rabia Noor

Rabia Noor

Rabia Noor, freelance journalist at Greater Kashmir and Assistant Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at the Islamic University of Science and Technology, Kashmir. Rabia has also worked with the Zee News Srinagar Bureau, Kashmir Speaks and Kashmir Affairs.

Congratulations to the ISMF 2019 fellows!

The India Science Media Fellowships (ISMF) were launched on the eve of India’s National Science Day 2019. The fellowships aim to boost the coverage of science in the Indian media, and consequently enrich the public understanding of and engagement with science and related policy issues. The fellowship is designed to support Indian journalists to build a body of science-based journalistic work.

The fellowship will also provide a platform for the Fellows to connect with science and communication experts, to receive mentorship on the nuances of science journalism and the dynamics of impactful science reportage.

Recognising the contribution of Nature Research journal referees

This guest blog comes from Ritu Dhand, VP Editorial, Nature Journals.

Nature’s trial to formally acknowledge the contribution of its peer reviewers by naming them on published papers with permission of the referee and author has been expanded to eight more Nature Research journals. 55% of referees opted in during the initial phase.

The Nature-branded journals publish over 8,000 primary research papers each year. Behind each paper is a talented team of reviewers who have helped our professional editors to assess the scientific claims being made. Peer review is the formal quality-assurance mechanism whereby research manuscripts are subjected to technical evaluation and assessment of impact, and is a cornerstone of quality, integrity and reproducibility in research. However, most reviewers receive little recognition for their efforts. Given how highly we value the contributions of our reviewers, we wanted to give them an option to be formally and publicly recognised for their role in the peer-review process.

We have also been exploring ways to introduce transparency to the peer review process. For several years, researchers have argued that single-blind peer review, where the referees are unknown to the author, is sub-optimal. The lack of transparency means researchers must have confidence that referees and editors are acting with integrity and without bias. In a survey with responses from 1,230 Nature referees, 82% agreed that the traditional peer review process is effective in ensuring work that is published is high-quality. Yet 63% of respondents also agreed that publishers should experiment with alternative peer review methods, and 51% agreed that peer review could be more transparent and that they expect publishers to do more.

As a way of both acknowledging the work of reviewers and introducing transparency to the peer-review process, we launched our referee recognition trial at Nature in spring 2016. At the end of the peer-review process, authors and peer reviewers are given the option of having referee names formally acknowledged on the published paper. If the authors also agree, peer reviewers who give permission will have their name included in the ‘reviewer information’ section of the paper where we thank them for their contribution. In some cases, some referees on a paper may choose to have their name listed, while others may choose to remain anonymous.

Over the last three years, around 3,700 Nature referees across the natural sciences have chosen to be publicly recognised and around 80% of Nature papers have at least one referee named. We have not seen any significant differences in behaviour between researchers in the life and physical sciences. 91% of Nature authors opted in to the trial, while among referees, 55% opted in (26% opted out and 19% did not respond). When surveyed, 80% of referees that had participated in the Nature referee recognition trial said they would be happy to be named again. The Nature reviews journals also rolled out the referee recognition trial one year ago and saw 57% of reviewers opting in to be publicly named. More recently, we have rolled out the trial at eight Nature Research journals:  Nature Astronomy, Nature Climate Change, Nature Nanotechnology, Nature Neuroscience, Nature Physics, Nature Plants, Nature Protocols and Nature Communications.

We analysed the gender and career stage of authors and referees who took part in the trial over a nine-month period (where these data were available in our peer review system or could be cross-checked with public sources). The percentages of female and male corresponding authors opting into the trial were similar: 90% and 93%, respectively. The proportion of female and male referees who agreed to be named was also similar: around 50% and 56%, respectively. A similar proportion of referees from early, middle and late career stages were happy to be named: 54% of researchers/post-docs, 50% of assistant/associate professors, and 55% of professors opted in to the trial.

We also surveyed all reviewers who had reviewed for our journals in the course of one year to better understand their motivations for participating in the peer-review process and their views on peer review more broadly. Altruism was a key driver of participation in peer review. 87% of researchers who responded said they considered it their academic duty to peer review and 77% said that participating would help to safeguard the quality of published research. Conversely, only 6% of reviewers noted that participating in peer review enhanced their CV and 7% said it encouraged favourable views from editors. Unsurprisingly, most reviewers (94%) said that the subject area is a key factor when deciding which manuscripts to review.

Despite the time and effort peer review requires, 71% of respondents did not expect acknowledgement for peer review and 58% thought that rewards may compromise the review procedure. However, when asked from whom would they most value recognition, 44% said they would most value recognition for peer review to come from publishers or editors.

We also asked reviewers what they thought the impacts of public referee recognition might be. 78% felt that naming the reviewers would result in better written reports; 68% thought it would have a positive impact on transparency; 47% thought it would have a positive effect on honesty of reporting; and 52% of those who had not been formally acknowledged by a Nature-branded journal indicated that they would consider being named if given the option.

About a quarter of researchers opted out of the trial and appeared to be against the principle of referees being named on published papers. Their concerns mainly focused around the practice could increase the chances of the system being gamed by individuals — perhaps starting a ‘you owe me’ mechanism — or referee reports being toned down, either to avoid upsetting or from fear of retaliation from disgruntled authors, particularly those in senior positions. Many of these researchers believe that peer review should always be confidential and are against this level of transparency. For these reasons, referee recognition remains optional on the Nature-branded journals.

To see so many of our referees choosing to be named is a reflection of the changing attitudes towards peer review.  We are happy that we can publicly acknowledge the contribution to peer review of so many of them. We continue to listen to the community and acknowledge the call for further consideration of other ways to do peer review. Nature Communications has been publishing referee reports for over three years, and we are discussing whether offering this as an option on other Nature Research journals is something we can practically consider in the future. Watch this space for further information!


A related Nature editorial is also available here: Three-year trial shows support for recognizing peer reviewers

A professional doctorate for a career beyond academics

In today’s guest post, Anushika Bose, an alumna of the University of Delhi, shares her journey as a researcher in the area of renewable energy, and her unusual choice of  a ‘professional doctorate’.

Anushika did a PhD from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig, Germany, while being associated as a visiting scholar at the Humboldt University of Berlin. What prompted her choice, what does such an association mean and how is it different from a doctorate in an academic University? Read on.

Anushika Bose

Science was not my first love

Frankly, I wasn’t interested in science or medicine to begin with. I wanted to study law and work as a corporate lawyer. But for my Bengali parents, the definition of education was simply “science”. They steered me into science but left me to get as creative as I could with the subject. I prepared to sit in the medical entrance examinations in India but got through dental sciences only. As I was aware of my pathetic practical hand, clubbed with the fear of not performing well (and keeping in mind the general well-being of humanity), I chose not to go ahead with it.

Despite the decision, the fascination of having the initial “Dr.” prefixed to my name lurked at the back of my mind.

I enrolled for a bachelor’s degree in science from the University of Delhi, where studying about the environment and its ordeals fascinated me. After a master’s in environment management, I got a scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) to do a PhD in Germany. I was 23. I knew it was too early, but I could not miss the chance. I felt a bit awkward amidst my fellow scholarship awardees, all of whom had previous research experience and publications in international journals.

Studying smart, eco-friendly energy

As a research scholar at Humboldt University in Berlin, I worked on environmentally smart and safe deployment of wind energy infrastructure across landscapes, specifically minimising the direct collision of birds with turbines, thereby keeping green energy as green as possible.

Well aware of the urgent utility of my research, I applied for recognition from the United Nations for a visiting PhD and simultaneously worked as a scientist at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig, Germany.

It worked for me because of an existing system of cooperation between universities and research organisations in Germany. Scholars who join a research organisation for a PhD get associated to a professor (with a similar research background or interest) in a University. In such cases we serve the organisation and its projects. The scientific publication generated from these projects (authored by the scholars), published mostly in international peer-reviewed journals, is also compiled later to form a thesis. The scholar then defends his/her research by means of this thesis in the University and gets a doctoral degree from the University. The best part of such an association is that the years you spend doing research are counted as both work experience and academic record.

I came back to India to head the geospatial analytics wing of a renewable energy research and analytics firm based in Gurgaon, Haryana. We address the various technical, strategic and commercial challenges that the renewables industry faces, with a particular emphasis on risks and uncertainties at each stage of the value chain. We envision helping economies integrate renewable energy into their energy mix using our analytical platforms for a cleaner, sustainable and better tomorrow.

The German experience

At UFZ, I focused on environmentally safe and smart spatial planning of renewable energy infrastructures across the German landscape. My objective was to see how both the environment and people could benefit from sustainable use of wind energy.

UFZ’s approach of working with a global focus suited my career portfolio. Their research was through integration and synthesis of results on-ground, which was helpful when I later tried replicating the strategies in India. UFZ  gives young environmental science researchers ample freedom and insight into integrative research, alongside preparing them for political and managerial careers.

I also liked the flexible, no-fuss, punctuality-driven work environment. I loved the ‘work hard, party harder’ culture, where weekend planning begins by 2 p. m. on Fridays. The segregation of private and work life – no calls, no emails on the weekends, no last minute hassles, nothing ad-hoc – is priceless.

The cultural learning was enriching too – from waiting at traffic lights patiently to sorting trash, from making grocery shopping lists to reading every line in an agreement document before signing. I was amazed at how much the Germans love Indian culture and traditions – they participate in Indian festivals held in major cities there, wearing the Indian attire, relishing our “spicy” food.

The language barrier was never an issue because DAAD made sure we were trained in Deutsch before pursuing research. As far as racism goes, I did hear cases against fellow Indians from time to time though personally I did not face any. Many people confused me as being from the Middle East. Middle Eastern women often came up to me to ask why I haven’t covered my head. There is a substantial Middle Eastern community in Berlin and Leipzig, which maybe the reason I never faced discrimination.

The one challenge I did face was being homesick — especially I lived with my parents all my life. I missed family, food and friends, strictly in that order, during my time outside the country.

Academic vs. professional doctorate

Another challenge was pursuing a professional doctorate from a research organisation instead of a university. In general, a doctorate prepares one for an academic career, while a professional doctorate is geared more towards a professional career. While professional doctorates may hold an adjunct or even regular faculty position at Universities, the reverse is not true. This was my primary motivation behind opting for professional doctorate. All doctoral programmes, however, require coursework and an individual research project. The one at the University requires comprehensive exams and may include residencies, which is mostly not the case at research organisations.

The primary difference between these two types of doctorates is the type of research. University doctorates have a guided set up with assistance from professors, postdocs and fellow PhDs. Professional doctorate students, on the other hand, are expected to expand and apply existing knowledge and research to existing problems in their professional fields, often not with much guidance. A professional doctorate is counted under both work experience and educational experience. It benefits both ways but comes with an enormous pressure to perform and publish just as fellow experienced scientist colleagues.

Ultimately, the decision to pursue any of these types of doctorates should be based on assessing one’s career goals and how one plans to use the degree to meet these goals.

A postdoc is an individual choice. My focus had always been more towards a professional career instead of purely academics. Though scholarships and positions for postdocs exist in Germany, they expect a brilliant publication record and an equally good PhD research experience. This is mostly possible if you have worked in the same lab or institution and under the same project, preferably under the same supervisor/professor. Therefore, it is a common practice to absorb a graduating PhD from a lab as a postdoc in the same lab.

I would suggest aspiring Indian students to look for collaborations with their institutes/organisations here and the desired organisations in Germany. India’s Department of Science and Technology and the German government promote such joint research initiatives, allowing institutes and collaborators to connect.

Back Home

Back home now, my research is majorly into renewable energy development projects, primarily to guide India towards a renewable energy transition. The easy availability of technicalities from countries like Germany could facilitate India’s rapid energy transition into a future CO2 neutral economy in India.

Joint research initiatives could allow German institutes and collaborators to connect and utilise their expertise gathered over decades, monitor the results on a different soil, and gain international experience through collaborations with India.

My pursuit remains to stay well connected and incorporated with my work in both the countries.

[Anushika Bose can be contacted at]