Freiburg Rising Stars Academy: A path to academic opportunities
A select group of international early-career researchers get the chance to explore new academic avenues and advance their careers with the Freiburg Rising Stars Academy.
Sometimes, one action can change one’s career path, take one to another city or country and open up countless new opportunities. For Dr. Edoardo Milana and Dr. María Belén Camarada, applying for the Freiburg Rising Stars Academy at the University of Freiburg was such an action.
“The Freiburg Rising Stars Program really influenced my career path, because thanks to this experience, I was able to build up my own project and am now doing my post-doc at the University of Freiburg”, says Edoardo Milana, a Rising Star Academy alumnus originally from Rome, Italy.
The first iteration of the Freiburg Rising Stars Program was a great success
The Freiburg Rising Stars Program started in 2020 with the goal of bringing together outstanding international early-career researchers with top-level scientists at the University of Freiburg and research institutes in the region. In 2021/2022 when the University of Freiburg hosted the first group of Rising Stars, participating host institutions and Principal Investigators (PIs) came from:
Centre for Biological Signaling Studies (BIOSS)
Cluster of Excellence: CIBSS – Centre for Integrative Biological Signaling Studies
Cluster of Excellence: livMatS – Living, Adaptive and Energy-autonomous Materials Systems
Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics
The pilot project in 2021/2022 was a great success. “Initially, I was a bit skeptical because it was a brand-new program, but it was well organized and worked out really well for me”, says Dr. Viacheslav Slesarenko, Junior Research Group Leader in the Cluster of Excellence livMatS, University of Freiburg. He is one of the PIs who participated in the program.
The Freiburg Rising Stars Academy was originally financed through the International Research Marketing Ideas Competition by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and is now a permanent institution at the University of Freiburg.
The program aims at establishing long-lasting connections and collaborations
The Freiburg Rising Stars Academy focuses on long-term benefits: Not only does it foster strong international collaborations, joint publications and networks, but it is also intended to serve as a door-opener for the next career steps for international early-career researchers, PhD candidates or post-docs.
Even though the Freiburg Rising Stars Academy is a fairly new program, it aims at establishing lasting connections. Further down the road, for Rising Stars alumni, this could mean becoming a research group leader and even obtaining a tenure-track position.
To advance toward these goals, finding the right candidates internationally and connecting them with the suitable principal investigators is crucial. “It has to be a great match for it to bring the most benefits”, says Eva Rüskamp, project leader for international research marketing at the University of Freiburg. That’s why the academy consists of multiple tiers.
A multi-tier program
First, the principal investigators who choose to participate introduce themselves and specify whether they are looking for PhD candidates or post-docs or both, so the announcement is as targeted as possible. For Edoardo Milana, this was a major factor in his decision to apply: “When I saw that Viacheslav Slesarenko was a host PI, I thought that this was the perfect opportunity to develop my idea and get in touch with him as he is a leading expert in mechanical metamaterials.”
Both Milana and Slesarenko advise potential candidates to contact the PIs before sending their application to see whether their projects are a good fit. “Be smart about how you apply and don’t do it blindly”, says Viacheslav Slesarenko.
Once the applications have been received and reviewed, 25 candidates are selected and invited to a digital kick-off event. The early-career scientists then have another three months to refine and focus their ideas before the Rising Stars Conference.
For the conference, the selected Rising Stars will travel to Freiburg – the expenses are covered – and visit with their host-PIs. They attend workshops, connect with early-career scientists from different fields and explore the city of Freiburg. In addition to advancing their scientific projects, the Rising Stars also learn about scientific career paths in Freiburg.
María Belén Camarada came from Chile and was already an assistant professor at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile – one of the top universities in Latin America. She had established her own research group when she first learned about the Freiburg Rising Stars Academy. “The program sounded really interesting”, she says. Previously, she had spent one year at the University of Ulm during her PhD and was familiar with the academic landscape in Baden-Württemberg. Her connection to Germany goes even further back in time: As a child, she had studied at a German school in Chile.
Scientific and cultural exchanges at the conference
She applied to the Freiburg Rising Stars Academy with her project of rhenium-based nanomaterials for hydrogen production. “Luckily, my host PI, Professor Dr. Anna Fischer, worked in a closely related field”, María Belén Camarada says. “Traveling to Freiburg gave me the amazing opportunity to interact with many researchers from different parts of the world and different scientific areas.” She especially liked the conversations with other female scientists about their experiences as women in science. The extra-conference activities were also great: “We had plenty of opportunities to network, to get to know Freiburg and even taste German wine, which was really good”, María Belén Camarada says.
For Edoardo Milana the Freiburg Rising Stars conference was also a very valuable experience: “It gave me the opportunity to present my research in front of a big audience here at the University of Freiburg.” The feedback motivated him to push his ideas forward even harder. He also appreciated the opportunity to spend time with other early-career researchers and exchange viewpoints and experiences about science in general, their specific projects and the life as scientists. “We had time to discuss new ideas and potentially establish new collaborations.”
A highlight of the Rising Stars Conference is the Rising Stars Night. During this festive event, a jury of experts selects the most promising research projects for the residency program, a flexible three-months fellowship at the University of Freiburg. For the selected Rising Stars, the Academy covers expenses for travel and accommodation up to 5.000 Euro.
Opening the doors to new academic career opportunities
María Belén Camarada welcomed the opportunity to spend three months in Freiburg to work on her research project with Professor Anna Fischer and a PhD student who had joined her from Chile. “The work in the lab was great”, she recalls. “During that time, I advanced my research and also made new friends.”
For Edoardo Milana, the Rising Stars Conference and the work with Viacheslav Slesarenko provided a boost to his scientific career. With the project initiated during the Freiburg Rising Stars Academy, Milana won the prestigious Walter Benjamin fellowship by the German Research Foundation (DFG). The associated grant allowed him to come back to Freiburg where he is now conducting his post-doctoral research in the lab of his former host-PI Viacheslav Slesarenko who says: “We do our own independent research but work very synergistically on soft robots and metamaterials.”
With Edoardo Milana now working as a post-doc at the University in Freiburg, the Rising Stars Academy has proven to be a powerful tool to attract top-notch young scientists to Freiburg. “This is a way we can achieve the internationalization of the research but also of the academic career pipeline”, says project lead Eva Rueskamp.
María Belén Camarada returned to Chile after three months in Freiburg, but an increase in violence in everyday life and limited opportunities as a scientist in Chile burdened her. “This is when I started to think more seriously about living in Germany”, she says. The Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) had a perfect job opening for a researcher like her specializing in nanotechnology. She applied successfully and moved to Karlsruhe with her partner, an electrical engineer who also secured a job.
For her, not only the opportunities as a scientist but also the quality of life in Baden-Württemberg made a real difference. “I am so happy to be in a country with less violence and more safety”, she says. Even though it meant to leave her career as an assistant professor in Chile behind. No doubt, the Freiburg Rising Stars Academy played a large role in bringing her back to Baden-Württemberg: “I don’t think without the Rising Stars Program, I would have considered moving to Germany”, she says.
While she was getting ready for her new role as a researcher at the KIT, her work with her host PI, professor Anna Fischer, continued. Just a week before she started her new position, the two scientists published a paper together. “I was very lucky to have Dr. Anna Fischer as a role model for women in science”, says María Belén Camarada.
Her next career goal is to become a junior group leader and have her own research group. For Edoardo Milana, this is also a potential next step. “My career goals for the future are to continue to do cutting edge research in soft robotics”, he says. “And, of course, to establish my own independent research group. Hopefully here in Baden-Württemberg”, he adds with a smile.
Applications for the Freiburg Rising Stars Academy 2023/24 open in April 2023. More info: https://uni-freiburg.de/frsa
Update: Dr. Edoardo Milana has been appointed Tenure-Track-Professor for Soft Machines at the Institute of Microsystems Engineering at the University of Freiburg as of May 1, 2023. Read the press release by University of Freiburg to learn more.
Tip for international researchers: If you are looking for academic positions in Baden-Württemberg, use our job search!
Author: Siri Schubert