International brain power for new battery research

With the urgent need to lower CO2 emissions to mitigate climate change, most people would agree: The future will be electric. Batteries will play an important role in this future, and this is why Montaha Anjass’ work is so important.

Solving global challenges

Montaha Anjass is an independent research group leader and a Margarete-von-Wrangell-Fellow at Ulm University and the Helmholtz Institute Ulm. Her work focuses on developing solution concepts for global challenges such as energy conversion and storage.
As the prevalence of electric vehicles and the demand for batteries are increasing globally, lithium-ion batteries appear not to be sustainable in the medium and long-term. They are also expensive and don’t have a stellar safety record. Therefore, good alternatives are urgently needed. Abundant materials such as magnesium, sodium and aluminum are currently being explored with the goal to create batteries that match or surpass the performance and affordability of today’s lithium-ion batteries.

This is not an easy task and Montaha Anjass’ work on advanced functional nanostructures is highly complex. But Montaha Anjass – who is originally from Palestine – is known to take on any challenge. “My journey towards becoming a professor started once I decided to leave my home country to pursue graduate studies”, she recalls. “Ulm was one of the few universities at the time that offered international programs and the exceptional quality of education convinced me”, she says.

 

A successful academic career

Montaha Anjass received her B.Sc. degree in Chemistry from Birzeit University, Palestine in 2011 and her M.Sc. degree in Advanced Materials from Ulm University, Germany in 2015. In 2019, she completed her PhD at Ulm University. From 2019-2020 she focused on battery research as a postdoc at Helmholtz-Institute Ulm. As an independent research group leader and a Margarete-von-Wrangell-Fellow, she is also involved in two big projects at Ulm Energy Campus: the Cluster of Excellence PoLiS and SFB TRR234 CataLight.

The high quality of her work has attracted considerable attention: Montaha Anjass is a 2021 Maria Gräfin von Linden Prize finalist. She has won the 2020 Südwestmetall-Förderpreis and was named a Reaxys PhD Prize Finalist in 2020.

This sounds like the ultimate dream career but getting to where she is now wasn’t always easy. “As a mother of three children, I had to combine family responsibilities with research activities”, she describes her every-day life. “Moving from a totally different culture and society was also challenging”, she says. “Especially being a Muslim who wears the hijab.”

 

Relentless focus, hard work and a brilliant mind

Still, she persisted: “My believe in myself and my constant focus on the goal have made things possible”, she says. “I am enthusiastic about my research field, I work toward my objectives regardless of gender bias or societal pressures, and I never give up or stop when faced with challenges.”

This attitude, her brilliant mind and her strong work ethics have resulted in a PhD with Summa cum laude “Highest Honor”. Shortly afterwards, she was awarded the Margarethe von Wrangell fellowship and started her independent research activities. Meanwhile, she leads an active and successful research group and has built collaborations with different universities in Germany, the UK, the USA, and Palestine.

 

The Margarethe von Wrangell fellowship

The Margarethe von Wrangell fellowship was an important milestone for Montaha Anjass: It is the first step toward a professorship. Besides being able to establish an independent research group, becoming an official supervisor for PhD students and conducting courses are key competencies needed for a professorship. In addition, the Margarethe von Wrangell fellowship provides workshops, seminars, and trainings. “Being awarded such a fantastic fellowship is a significant boost and a chance for me to continue my academic career”, Montaha Anjass says.

 

Support for women in research

Especially important and surprising for her was the support she received as a woman and a mother. “Many supporting programs are offered by the university as well as by the state of Baden-Württemberg to assist women with their research, their academic career and their families.” This happened on an institutional but also on a very practical level: “During my time here alone with my daughter, I recall that several of the lecturers encouraged me to attend lectures with my child, and that the administrative assistant looked after my child while I was writing exams or attending practical courses. This demonstrates how supportive the education community is to mothers!”

 

Advice for international scholars and scientists

Montaha Anjass is definitely a trailblazer and many international students and researchers – male and female alike – will look up to her as an example. When asked what advice she would give to any international student/PhD/researcher or scientist coming to Baden-Württemberg, she replied:

  • “Before you enter the field, think about it and decide what you really want to achieve or to be!”
  • “Always keep your eye on your goal; if you keep your focus on the goal, you will be able to overcome difficulties easily.”
  • “Allow yourself enough time to enjoy your life and experience all stages of it. Don't spend your entire life working. Baden-Württemberg has much to offer. I especially enjoy nature here.”
  • “Try to find friends from same culture and familiarize yourself about the academic system at your university, build networks, push yourself to start conversations with your colleagues and find new friends share your culture with them and learn about their culture.”
  • “Keep an open mind and consider things from different perspectives. Don't take it personally if a fellow student or professor behaves differently than you would expect; instead, consider how their background and their culture may influence their behavior.”