Widespread laughter, pure joy and exuberance dominated the building of the Projektträger Jülich on Monday morning. This was due to the reunion of the 59 students from the 15 West African ECOWAS states. After the end of the winter semester, they all met again for the first time in Germany. For some, it is the first big trip, a journey to another continent, a foreign country and a new cultural environment.

The journey of the young Africans in the International Master’s Programme IMP-EGH started a year and a half ago. Finally, at the end of April this year, their last hot phase began before their master’s degree awaits: the students came to Germany to write their final thesis. During the turbulent Onboarding Week, the young people had the opportunity to gain their first experiences in Germany.

Why should students actually go abroad?

Some of you may ask: What do the students actually gain from going to Germany? First and foremost, of course, it’s about advancing their own academic education. At Forschungszentrum Jülich, RWTH Aachen University and the University of Rostock, they will experience state-of-the-art research and write their master’s thesis under the guidance of local scientists. Energy research is known to be one of the main areas of research at Forschungszentrum Jülich. Jülich is therefore the right place for the young Africans from the IMP-EGH, who will be future energy experts for renewable energies and green hydrogen. Afterwards, they will take the knowledge they have gathered here back home with them and can pass it on to others.

In addition to the professional components, traveling always brings you into contact with a different culture. You learn something about yourself and other people. That’s another great benefit that travelers bring back home.

Different countries, different weather

While at the end of April for the Germans the jackets are thinner and the walks in the fresh air longer as well as the first sunbeams are enjoyed, in the German areas the nearly 60 students from Africa felt rather like in an icebox. When the usual temperature normally does not drop below 25 degrees, a morning with only five degrees Celsius is a real challenge. This year, unfortunately, April came with exactly these cold degrees and, to make matters worse, with rain on top of it all. And although the wet and cold temperatures were not so pleasant for the visitors who are spoiled by warmth, they assured that experiencing the German weather is simply part of the experience. Through numerous reports via telephone calls, their families were thus also able to share in their experiences.

In addition to the different weather conditions, the students had to overcome all kinds of bureaucratic hurdles. However, the young Africans were not deterred by the very regulated and structured life in Germany. Fortunately! One student, for example, reported on her first impressions of the people in Germany. At first, she had some reservations and was worried about what it would be like when she arrived in Germany. It was all the more surprising for her to meet such open and supportive people.

Question of the week: Why do Germans walk so fast?

As a German, there was one question I could not answer and at the same time it made me ponder. The first week included some visits to various institutes in Jülich and Aachen. Unfortunately, one student lost his group. On the way to his group and the right institute, we got to talking and he asked: Why do Germans always walk so fast?

Good question! Why actually?

https://www.fz-juelich.de/de/aktuelles/news/meldungen/2023/59-masterand-innen-aus-westafrika (german)



The picture shows a wooden stand containing several test tubes with liquids of different colors.

Equity, diversity & inclusion in the context of science can be approached from different angles. First, one might think about how the science community might become more diverse and equitable as it pertains representation. Hence, the long-lasting question: how can STEM institutions recruit more women and people from underrepresented backgrounds? Furthermore, #ichbinhanna is an ongoing issue ( for good reasons!) and it is important to talk about the often precarious working conditions in academia, to criticize them and to fight for an adjustment of the system. Because once again, those who are disproportionately affected are those who belong to underrepresented groups and do not conform to the long-held normative view of who scientists should be: white, male, from well-educated families.

This post is not meant to be a contribution to this important discussion. Rather, today I would like to report on a goal that we have established as part of our Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan. Diversity aspects can (and often do) play an important role in research, and this does not only pertain the people we hire, the composition of our teams, internal policies, and processes; diversity and equity considerations should be embedded in research planning and research design as well.

Carolin Criado-Perez wrote what I think is an eye-opening book on the topic: Invisible Women. In er book she uses numerous case studies to show how women (let’s not even talk about other underrepresented groups) have almost been completely ignored – and thus discriminated against – by research, even though they make up almost 50% of the world’s population! Did you know that most medical textbooks still do not contain any gender-specific information on topics where gender differences have long been proven, such as depression or the effects of alcohol on the body? Or that studies by the pharmaceutical industry for many years were not necessarily conducted on female subjects? Results were considered generally valid for both sexes. It is not a secret that gender differences exist in the functioning of organs. Or did you know that crash tests, which are supposed to making driving as safe as possible, are carried out on dummies modelled on the standard male body and thus used as a representative of the adult population in general? And the “female dummies” that sometimes might be used are simply smaller variants of the male ones and present no specific female features as it pertains body shape and anatomy. Not to mention that they are often only tested in the co-driver’s seat.  Pretty unfair and excluding, isn’t it?

Examples like these are numerous, but fortunately researchers are now becoming increasingly aware of knowledge inequality. So, this brings me back to our goal because what is the point of the most exciting and innovative research if it is not also visible. It is almost impossible to keep track of the countless papers that are published every day. Fortunately, there are opportunities for scientists to exchange ideas, and such a format has been established at FZJ with the Jülich Colloquia organised by the Scientific and Technical Council (WTR). In the project, we quickly realised that this format would provide an excellent framework for making D&I aspects of research accessible to a larger (expert-) audience. The WTR was of the same opinion and so, in close cooperation and with the involvement of our scientists, we succeeded in identifying speakers who could either report on D&I-relevant aspects in their research or provide best practice examples of how they promote Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in their institutions. In the future, at least one lecture per year will take place, in which the above-mentioned aspects will be addressed.

The image depicts the statue of Gaius Julius Caesar in via dei Fori Imperiali (Rome). Picture by Antonio Filigno

Having grown up in Italy it is difficult not to develop a fascination for the Roman empire. It is not intentional, but somehow, day after day you stumble upon it and before you realize it, it has become part of your cultural baggage and system of references.

Thinking about my four years at FZJ I can’t help but think about the famous sentence “Veni, Vidi, Vici” (“I came, I saw, I conquered”) pronounced by Julius Caesar after his swift victory at the Battle of Zela (or, if you prefer, it’s elegant Ghostbusters re-adaptation “We came. We saw. We kicked its @##“). Well, if you can picture that, now, just picture the opposite. It is not that we lost our battle (or got kicked in the @## to keep the elegant reference) but every step we took required a great amount of time and effort by people from all over the organization.

Speed is not a value by itself. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy working in a fast-paced environment where everything seems possible, and I want to see tangible results as outcomes of my work. Diversity, equity, and inclusion, however, often requires patience and perseverance, especially if you want to go beyond performative actions and have a long-lasting impact. Aristotele wrote that “the action that follows deliberation should be quick, but deliberation should be slow” and our way of moving forward has been very Aristotelian.

As we started our DEI project, our goals were to evaluate the status of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the Center, develop a DEI strategy and implement it. After a little more than two years, we have released FZJ’s first diversity and inclusion action plan, this is certainly an achievement that deserves celebrating, especially because it gives us a glimpse into the organization we aspire to build together.

During this time, I discovered a community of exceptional people, fierce allies and passionate individuals who tirelessly work to bring change forward: scientists, administrators, technical and area experts, employees in charge of maintaining our physical and digital infrastructure, trainees, doctoral researchers, fire fighters, guests, and fellows from all over the world. Our Action Plan, not only sets a vision and goals for the future, but also wants to recognize some of the outstanding individuals who tirelessly contributed to make Forschungszentrum Jülich a safer and more welcoming organization for people from a variety of backgrounds, with a variety of needs and aspirations.

You can download FZJ Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan (PDF) following the link in the text. The document is divided in four sections: a brief foreword from our board of directors, explaining why diversity, equity and inclusion matter to us, a short history of DEI at the Center, an overview of our assessment and a final chapter explain what goals we have identified for our organization and how we are going to achieve them. I will tell you more about some of the measures we have already implemented in my next blog post.

When you think of an interesting international personality, it is certainly someone like Dr. Gabriela Figueroa Miranda. Not only does this young woman have two passports, one from her home country Mexico and one from Germany, she also brings with her a high level of innovativeness, a lot of scientific research drive and quite a bit of biochemical knowledge. In short, a personality you want to get to know. As part of the Umbrella cooperation, Gabriela has now visited the land of innovation, Israel.

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Official music video of the song “Trapped in a Box” by No Doubt.

Diversity and inclusion should be about recognizing people´s individuality, seeing the person beyond the label. Though, labels are an essential tool for D&I practitioners, and I am not sure there is an easy way out this paradox. It is a daily conundrum. Labels often perpetrate those same power dynamics that diversity and inclusion practitioners should be challenging. They are intrinsically divisive; they create artificial barriers harnessing a reality that is often more fluid and complex. Yet, labels provide an important framework to analyze and validate the experiences of an heterogeneous group of people sharing common experiences or characteristics – whether those are subscribed or ascribed.

A friend and former colleague told me that her European students often believe that D&I does not exist in Europe – nor there is need for that. Somehow, they believe that inequality is specific to the United States and therefore it needs no addressing outside of this specific context. Police violence, LGBTIAQ+ shootings, limited access to education and healthcare, the KKK, are often brought as examples of realities foreign to Europe. Inequality, however, is everywhere and Europe makes no exception. Failure to recognize it signals that we might be watching from a privileged position.

Context matters and we can´t expect inequality to look the same across counties with different cultures and administrative contexts. Our past is not America´s past and social constructs that apply to the U.S. do not easily translate to Europe´s context. Further, there is a high degree of variability across Europe itself, even when our cultures are not too far apart. The D&I conversation, however, is very much dependent on U.S. specific identity labels that poorly apply to the cultural and social context of Germany. And this has been one of the main challenges that we have faced when we started developing a climate survey for Forschungszentrum Jülich. We knew what we wanted to ask, but we felt like we didn´t have an adequate vocabulary for that.

One good example for that is what Americans call “Race”. Europeans – unless they are playing at Dungeons and Dragons – do not talk about race and there are very good reasons for that. Race is a social construct based on the false premises of white supremacy and using it to classify people means holding true this way of making sense of society. While race is a made-up concept, however, the impact of racism on people´s life is very real and should not be ignored. Data collection, therefore, should not be avoided. The question, however, remains: how can we monitor racism within our context without talking about race? From our discussions with our D&I council, it seemed clear that skin tone was only one of the many aspects to be considered. But then what about other physical traits such as hair color and texture that are still essential to the process of othering in Germany? Not only we have an awareness problem, but we also have a language one. Speechless, that is how we felt. Simply unable to adequately put into words the reality that many people are living.

Of course, a possible way of action would have been to ask people to self-define themselves. As it comes to surveys, however, this solution is not always preferable as variance in respondents ´answers might generate data that then are hard to analyze and compare. In consultation with the Sounding Group, therefore, several questions were created to capture the uniqueness of people´s experiences based on a variety of intersecting characteristics that fit the cultural and social environment within which we operate. It was honestly challenging and time consuming, but creating the survey gave us the opportunity to redefine diversity from our own perspective.

Dr. Junbeom Park is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Energy and Climate Research, Fundamentals of Electrochemistry (IEK-9). In his blog article, the native South Korean reports on his time at Forschungszentrum Jülich and, in particular, on a workshop that not only opened up opportunities for collaboration, but was also balm for the soul after the long Corona period.

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A Lego character depicting an archeologist, a looter, or maybe that's just a diversity and inclusion practitioner.

A Lego character depicting an archeologist, a looter, or maybe that’s just a diversity and inclusion practitioner. Photo by Grianghraf on Unsplash.

Indiana Jones has aged terribly, there is no doubt, and this seems a recurrent problem with many of  my childhood heroes.  I can still hold onto Jam and She-ra but it doesn’t really fix many of the 80s and 90s pop culture’s issues as it comes to diversity and inclusion. Our own biases stem from the meaning system in which we were raised, and while most regret puffed shoulders, ruffles, and peculiar hair choices, uncovering the faults of schooldays champions has a bitter taste. I am just surprised, though, that today we keep talking about implicit biases, because the kind of messaging I get from old-time favorites is all but implicit. That is not where I want to go with this post, however.

Exploiting the Indiana Jones metaphor, rather, I was trying to evoke that sense of adventure, gusto for untraveled paths and eagerness to dig up hidden treasures that sometimes make looters, archeologists and diversity and inclusion practitioners unusually alike. Or at least that is how I felt when, after months of data collection and analysis, the production of a massive report and innumerable meetings with key stakeholders we came back home holding a D&I action plan in our hands.

I would consider writing FZJ’s first diversity and inclusion report a very important first milestone for the project. Mr. Jones might “not follow maps to buried treasures” and he might claim that X never marks the spot. Yet that is what the first report meant to us: a map with clear coordinates and instructions. A building block for further action that enables us to better seize our challenges and plan for adequate interventions.  

The report developed encompassed an evaluation of current anti-discrimination measures and resources, a qualitative study regarding the experiences of minority employees working at FZJ, an audit of internal policies, processes and infrastructure, the analysis of most relevant representation indicators, and a climate assessment based on data obtained through an employee survey in spring 2021. Multiple stakeholders were involved in the process and outcomes were presented to the Board of Directors, the D&I Sounding Group, the D&I Project Board as well as FZJ employees during the project´s “Strategy Development” stage.

From a general perspective, the report presented a positive situation as it concerns FZJ’s overall climate. Data emerging from the Audit do not suggest gender or ability-based biases in hiring. Further, the center was found to be compliant with German anti-discrimination laws. Qualitative interviews, however, in some cases also revealed negative attitudes towards women and ethnic and sexual minorities in our work environment. From the survey, it emerged that one in four participants has at least occasionally witnessed bullying or acts of exclusion in the workplace, and people belonging to underrepresented and/or minority groups were less likely to report positive experiences.

The survey revealed that leadership is an essential component to create and sustain an inclusive environment. People who rated their superiors positively were more likely to report better workplace experiences. From qualitative interviews, however, it emerged that people in leadership positions might lack information and skills to champion change within the organization and model inclusiveness.

In the survey, international employees reported less positive experiences than German employees as it concerns access to services and information. Additionally, interviews revealed that currently provided information and services might not always respond to the needs of under-represented and minority groups. The mapping of anti-discrimination resources revealed, for instance, that information on individual rights, institutional resources and employees’ duties are not always adequately communicated to different employees’ groups. Currently existing D&I infrastructure, furthermore, does not always allow the organization to adequately integrate diversity and inclusion considerations in its daily practices.

The survey also revealed that scientists scored lower than other participants did as it concerns personal connections and involvement opportunities. Doctoral researchers were more likely to report high levels of stress and isolation. It should be considered, however, that data were collected during a country-wide lockdown due to Covid-19 which might have exacerbated such feelings.

Developing the FZJ D&I Report was an incredibly intense period. The workload to be processed within six months was considerable and adequately communicating over 150 pages of findings to different audiences and stakeholders wasn´t any easier. In some circumstances, however, what proved to be really difficult was holding people from jumping to action. We finally had a map, that was true, but we still needed to draw an X on it and discuss logistical details – which is often not a very enticing conversation when compared to the thrill of hitting the road.  

After only a few days, with many impressions in Togo, the travel group continued their tour on Thursday. By minibus they crossed the border into Ghana and drove through the streets in the direction of Accra. In Accra, the most important agenda item awaited the delegation: the signing of the MOU between the West African Science Service Centre on Climate Change and Adapted Land Use (WASCAL), Forschungszentrum Jülich and RWTH Aachen University.

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The past two days in Lomé, Togo, were impressive, emotional, hopeful and simply wonderful. The West African state was the second of three stops during the delegation trip of German scientists from Forschungszentrum Jülich and RWTH Aachen University. Not only was an addendum drawn with the Université de Lomé, it also provided an impressive demonstration of the motivation and achievements of the 15 students from Track 4 “Biofuels and Bioenergy”.

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There are some problems we cannot solve alone: We need help from partners and friends. This applies, for example, to the current research and education situation in Africa, but also to the supply of energy, ressources and food. The two German institutions, Forschungszentrum Jülich and RWTH Aachen University, therefore signed an agreement on Monday yesterday with the Université Cheikh Anta Diop de Dakar (UCAD) in Dakar, Senegal, to help the university train the next generation of energy experts.

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