Deeply rooted, but outward looking

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24 september 2008 | Professor Heidi Wunderli-Allenspach, the Rector of ETH in Zürich, stresses the importance of exploring "the new areas of knowledge at the interface of the disciplines". New institutes to cross the traditional boundaries are set up. In an interview with ScienceGuide she sketches the new developments and her views on excellence, its meaning and how to maintain its value.

For many years now ETH is maintaining a high quality of research and education. What is the key to its success in your view?

Since its very beginning, ETH Zurich has had a focus on quality. We have always tried to recruit the best people as faculty and students, regardless of their nationality. Today, 60 per cent of our faculty, over half of our doctoral students and a growing share of our Master students are international.

All Master’s programmes at ETH Zurich are research based. We have always been strong both in the engineering and the natural sciences. With the Bologna reform, we have expanded our offering with a number of interdisciplinary Master’s programmes, such as Biomedical Engineering, Bioinformatics, or Micro and Nanosystems. [Read our in depth profile of ETH here]

“The interdisciplinary research conducted at ETH Zurich sets pointers for sustainable development worldwide”. How do you promote that this will be really done, not just talked about?

With our strength in engineering and the natural sciences, ETH Zurich is well placed to explore the new areas of knowledge at the interface of the disciplines. In recent years we have established “Centres of Competence” as platforms for interdisciplinary research, such as the Entergy Science Centre and the Network for Natural Hazards. We also have such collaborations with other universities, for example with the University of Basel in plant sciences and the University of Zurich in neuroscience.

Autonomy and accountability are highly topical issues in HE in Europe and worldwide. Since ETH is state controlled, what is the relationship between ETH and the city of Zurich. And, what is the relationship with the University of Zurich?
Zurich is our home town and the City of Zurich is an important partner for us. ETH Zurich is also very important for the city, not only as an employer but also for the knowledge produced here. The quality of our research and our graduates is an important factor for many international companies that have decided to locate their headquarters or a research centre in Zurich.

Our next-door neighbour, the University of Zurich is also an extremely important partner. The collaboration between the two institutions is very close. We complement each other in the disciplines covered. In the areas represented both at the University and at ETH, we coordinate our activities and share resources. We have over 20 joint professorships and numerous joint labs with the University. We also offer many services to our students together, such as housing, sports and counselling services.

The ETH is a very internationally orientated university. What has remained typically Swiss here?

An international orientation is a very Swiss characteristic, as is the focus on quality! Although we have a very international outlook, we are deeply rooted in Switzerland. The large majority of our undergraduate (Bachelor) students come from Swiss high-schools.

How did ETH participate in the Large Hadron Collider project?

Our Department of Physics collaborates closely with CERN. For the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), ETH Zurich has played a significant part in the development of the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) detector. The ETH-based Swiss National Supercomputing Centre is part of the Worldwide LHC Computing Grid which manages and archives the huge amounts of data produced by the LHC.

I read ETH traditionally achieves great marks in natural sciences, computer science and engineering sciences. but meanwhile is scoring low in categories involving student opinions. Are you not worried about this as the Rector?

The critical attitude might be another typically Swiss characteristic. Most students value our excellent infrastructure, the IT and library resources highly, but sometimes they criticize the teaching. This may reflect the fact that studying at ETH Zurich is quite demanding. Good teachers can make is easier but the responsibility for learning ultimately remains with the student. Interestingly, our students who have spent a semester abroad have a very high opinion of ETH Zurich.

What is the main focus of your attention for ETH’s development in the next couple of years?

The competition among universities worldwide is getting ever harder so our attention will continue to be on positioning ETH Zurich as a leading research university and a first-class educational institution. In research we will focus on areas that are promising and strategically important for Switzerland, addressing problems facing society, such as energy supply, climate change and an aging population.

For LHC question and ETH, see also:

The Phoenix Cluster was inaugurated recently at the Swiss National Supercomputing Centre (CSCS) in Manno, It is part of the Worldwide Large Hadron Collider Computing Grid (WLCG) which manages and archives the data produced by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) particle accelerator and makes it available to physicists for analysis. “The success of the LHC depends on the Large Hadron Collider Computing Grid from day one.” The Computing Grid links together a worldwide network of individual groups known as Grid Sites, each consisting of one or more logically interconnected computer clusters. They are all supplied with data from the LHC’s detectors while the experiments are running.

The Compact Muon Solenoid, or CMS detector, in the development of which ETH Zurich played a significant part, is still under construction. Felicitas Pauss, Professor for Particle Physics and Vice-Chairperson of the CMS Collaboration Board, talked to ETH Life about the extent of ETH Zurich’s contribution and the collaboration of hundreds of scientists.

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