Unexpected benefits – A report from Saarbrücken

Dutch science journalists David Redeker, Klaartje Jaspers and Daphne Riksen report from their press trip to the Saarland University (Saarbrücken, Germany) and nearby Schloss Dagstuhl from March 28-30, 2012. Apart […]

Dutch science journalists David Redeker, Klaartje Jaspers and Daphne Riksen report from their press trip to the Saarland University (Saarbrücken, Germany) and nearby Schloss Dagstuhl from March 28-30, 2012. Apart from the formal knowledge they gained, they were happy to find that the informal contacts with colleagues not only turned out to be fun, but useful as well.

With the tempting headline “How Computer Science and Materials Science are improving the world”, we attended three days of lectures by professors, postdoc researchers and PhD students. Our group consisted of 10 science journalists from Denmark, Russia, Belgium, Hungary, Austria and The Netherlands. Topics varied from Artifical Intelligence for medical applications to creating Open Source models that could put all kinds of change managers completely out of business.

We heard about software which can easily change your physical appearance in video images (imagine yourself in a home movie with a muscular body Hollywood-style) or which helps you to determine which makeup suits your face. In other talks we were updated on bioinformatics support of HIV therapy, automatic software debugging and interactive visualisation of large datasets on mobile devices. Also included were topics such as how to retain your privacy in an online world which is dominated by Facebook and Google, and retail technologies for the supermarket of the future. We learned how materials science influences the development of new cars, and toured the lab of the Steinbeis Material Engineering Center Saarland. Young researchers showed us a variety of laser techniques and 3D visualisation procedures such as nanotomography which help to understand the formation of microstructures and their consequences for the properties of a material.

On top of all this, we visited Schloss Dagstuhl – Leibniz Center for Informatics, a rather secluded but beautiful castle where renown informatics researchers ‒ among them winners of the Turing Award ‒ voluntarily lock themselves up for a week to discuss their research findings and work on new perspectives to cutting edge themes. Privileged to be able to attend this invitation-only event, we joined them for dinner and had a very pleasant evening afterwards with wine and cheese, which was both entertaining and enlightening.

In the car on the way back ‒ it is a five-hour drive from the Netherlands to Saarbrücken, which was a much better experience than our Russian colleagues who found themselves in the middle of a public transport strike ‒ we discussed the pros and cons of such EUSJA trips. In the first place, we learned a lot. The University of Saarbrücken has done its utmost best to find the most interesting subjects the university has to offer. Although we knew in advance who was going to talk about what subject, we were surprised about some of the topics. Organising such a trip is a clever way to show your work to science journalists, who will certainly write about the research that is going on at the university. We would have liked some variation however: more demos and less talks. The visit to the lab on the last day was a very nice way to talk informally to the researchers.

Another benefit of the trip was the informal contact we had with other science journalists. It was enlightening to discover the “business models” of our colleagues in other countries, where it is sometimes impossible to live from freelance science journalism. Even amongst our small Dutch delegation, we found it very interesting to compare our different ways of working. As we are all freelancers, being away from our home offices felt like a holiday. In that regard, the trip might have lasted longer.

Our three-day visit was covered by the Saarbrücker Zeitung, a strange experience for journalists who normally don’t attract but create attention!

About Fabio Turone

Fabio Turone directs the Agency Zoe of scientific and medical information. He is President of Science Writers in Italy, Course Director of the International School of Science Journalism based in Erice, Sicily, and works with UNESCO at the Balkan School of Science Journalism.