Doctoral school picks up speed

Through its new doctoral programme, the MaP Doctoral School, ETH Zurich plans to train specialists in materials and processes who will work across disciplines to tackle the big challenges of our time, such as climate change, sustainable development and personalised medicine.
PhD students at The Big Bang. This first joint event launched the MaP Doctoral School in November. (Photograph/Screenshot: MaP / ETH Zurich)

Lucio Isa, Professor of Soft Materials and Interfaces at ETH Zurich, had long been thinking about establishing a new doctoral school. His original plan had been to create a doctoral programme in the Department of Materials. However, the Competence Center for Materials and Processes (MaP) added a new twist to his plans: an interdisciplinary doctoral school that would work with materials and processes in a much broader sense.

The MaP Doctoral School was created in January 2021 – the third doctoral school at ETH. About 140 doctoral students from seven departments have registered so far, and the numbers are growing. The pilot phase will run until 2025. By then, the school is expected to reach full capacity – 400 to 600 doctoral students. This number (based on the students already affiliated to MaP) will be maintained by the graduation/enrolment of 50 to 100 students each year. All existing and new doctoral students of groups affiliated to MaP have the opportunity of joining the programme. Starting from January 2022, all doctoral students admitted to D-MATL will be part of the school, and many others are expected to follow.

The MaP doctoral programme’s declared goal is to train doctoral students to contribute to new solutions to society’s greatest challenges – ranging from climate change, sustainability and personalised medicine to the development of innovative materials and processes. “With our Doctoral School, we want to create future-ready graduates who will be able to develop sustainable solutions from their very first day in both their team and their profession,” says Isa, Director of the MaP Doctoral School.

«The diversity of expertise that specialists contribute is the foundation of the doctoral programme.»      Larissa Schefer, MaP Doctoral School Programme Coordinator

Breadth and depth of training

The MaP Doctoral School intends to achieve this by bringing in participants with a diverse range of expertise and subject backgrounds – from architecture to biology – with the aim of embracing transdisciplinarity in their projects. This will encourage networking and the exchange of ideas. “The diversity of expertise that specialists contribute is the foundation of the doctoral programme,” emphasises Larissa Schefer, MaP Doctoral School Programme Coordinator.

She notes that the Competence Center for MaP already puts a strong focus on integrating science and practice into its activities. Schefer is convinced that this new programme will strengthen cross-disciplinary collaboration and encourage knowledge transfer from basic research. The Executive Board explicitly acknowledges the extensive networking between researchers from various ETH departments with the institutions of the ETH Domain and with the materials and manufacturing industry, as well as various bottom-up initiatives and new formats, as a competitive strength of MaP. These new formats include the MaP Doctoral School, additivETH and CAS Advanced Materials and Processes.

In addition to a broad, transdisciplinary education, students will continue to receive in-depth training in their original field by being affiliated to a thematic track.

Video: MaP

Professors also benefit

However, it is not only students who will benefit from the school’s interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approach but also the professorships involved, says Schefer. “By strengthening a sense of community among the students, new opportunities for exchange and cooperation will emerge across different disciplines, which will act as a flywheel for new initiatives.”

Five thematic focus areas form the framework of the Doctoral School: advanced manufacturing, strength and durability of materials, science and technology of the small, sustainable, and bio-inspired materials and soft materials.

At the same time, doctoral candidates will receive more practical training. They will learn the tools necessary for their work in workshops, seminars and hands-on courses. They will also be instructed in data-driven materials and processes, good scientific practice and sustainability. There will be a strong focus on overarching transdisciplinary topics and a major effort to build a sense of community among students through targeted and interactive formats.

Positive results despite the pandemic

Numerous things were delayed or had to be postponed due to the pandemic. The launch phase, for example, where in-person meetings are essential, had to take place later than the initiators of the MaP Doctoral School had hoped. “But now, one year after the Executive Board approved and financed the initiative, we have got it off the ground,” says Isa happily.

The kick-off was named “The Big Bang”, an event in which the initiative was presented and the first cohort of students met in workshops to develop initial ideas for transdisciplinary initiatives that could support them in their doctoral studies.

“We’ve already seen some great concepts emerge,” reports Schefer, including scientific skills speed-dating, where doctoral students meet together regularly and present open questions about their research projects as they seek to find a match for solutions offered by fellow students. “Something like this will succeed only if students don’t sit and deliberate alone, but instead cultivate mutual communication and exchange,” she emphasises.

“The Big Bang was for many students the first time they met peers outside of their research groups, and their excitement and engagement was clearly visible and contributed towards making it a vibrant experience. We are very positive about the future!”, concludes Isa.