Dal profs and students talk oceans research with Chancellor Merkel

A private meeting with a global leader

- August 17, 2012

Chancellor Merkel sits at the head of the table with Dalhousie biologist Boris Worm at the start of the research meeting. (Danny Abriel photo)
Chancellor Merkel sits at the head of the table with Dalhousie biologist Boris Worm at the start of the research meeting. (Danny Abriel photo)

It’s not every day that you get to meet a world leader, let alone have the opportunity to share your passion with them.

But when Chancellor Angela Merkel made Dalhousie her only other stop besides Ottawa on her first bilateral visit to Canada, she specifically requested time to sit down and meet with some of the university’s oceans researchers — both faculty and students.

Despite the motorcade, security, and sizeable entourage, the researchers found Chancellor Merkel, who Forbes magazine recently named the world’s most powerful woman, surprisingly down-to-earth.

“At first I was intimidated,” said Paul Mattern, a PhD candidate in Mathematics and Statistics and Oceanography, who took part in the roundtable discussion with the Chancellor. “There were hundreds of people [on campus] and they were closing up all the [nearby] buildings, but she’s a very nice person. It was almost a personal communication with her.”

Chancellor Merkel has a doctor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Leipzig and is the first female Chancellor of Germany, a position she’s held since 2005.

“She was so approachable, it was unreal,” said Boris Worm, an assistant professor in Dal’s biology department, who facilitated the discussion. “She’s a scientist, so she was really interested in what was being said.”

“There’s a connection between her and science,” said Mr. Mattern. “She’s not just a far-removed politician.”

Mr. Mattern was actually singled out for recognition during the meeting: he defended his doctoral thesis on Wednesday, and the Chancellor personally congratulated him and led the room in applause.

“That doesn’t happen every day,” said Dr. Worm. “[Mr. Mattern is] German, too, so that means quite a bit, for the head of state of your country to congratulate you personally, one day after defending your PhD thesis.”

Making connections, determining priorities

The subjects discussed included global challenges, research priorities, policy requirements, and societal implications of oceans science, and how these will be addressed through German-Canadian collaboration. Part of the Chancellor’s visit to Dal included signing a memorandum of understanding on scientific research between the Halifax Marine Research Institute and Germany’s Helmholtz Association.

Read also: German Chancellor makes the most of her Dalhousie visit

Some of the researchers taking part in the discussion included biologists John Cullen, Sara Iverson and Julie Laroche; oceanographers Keith Thompson and Katja Fennel; Doug Wallace, the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Oceans Science and Technology; and Meinhard Doelle of the Schulich School of Law’s Marine & Environmental Law Institute.

“She showed interest in protected areas in the ocean,” said Dr. Worm, whose on-campus Worm Lab examines marine biodiversity. “She addressed the question of where these would have to be, how we can make sure from a scientific perspective that we’re putting them in the right places, making them big enough, and that things can be done in a timely manner. That’s something else she said: ‘You don’t want to come back in 10 years and find you’ve put a protected area in the wrong place.’”

Moritz Schmid, a PhD candidate in Oceanography at the University of Laval who also attended the roundtable, said much of the discussion focused on communication between scientists and the government, and how researchers can better connect their work with decision makers.

“We can’t talk about things [to politicians] in scientific language,” said Mr. Schmid. “We have to make it understandable.”

“She gave us some hints as to how that’s to happen,” said Dr. Worm. “She said scientists need to talk about what’s important from a policy perspective, to figure out what the priorities are, and how to simplify things.”

Science: A universal language

Dr. Worm is also German, as are Mr. Schmid and Franziska Bröll, a PhD candidate in Oceanography at Dal who was at the roundtable. One of the biggest issues of the evening was whether or not to use their native tongue when addressing Chancellor Merkel.

“That was a problem,” said Mr. Schmid. “I wasn’t sure whether to speak German or English. We always work in English and in the scientific field you’re more confident in English. But talking the Chancellor, I thought it’d be nice to talk German, so I talked German and it was great.”

Ms. Bröll had a similar experience: “I’ve had all my education in English, so I’m more comfortable speaking English about the work I’m doing. But when the Chancellor came, I really wanted to speak German to her, so I did. It looked like it made her happy to see Germans in Canada who were integrated and working as scientists, and that was very reassuring.”

The event was organized in a relatively quick 10-day period. “Everybody worked together very hard, and in the end, it was seamless,” said Dr. Worm. “It was relaxed and she said she felt very welcome, which is exactly what we wanted to do for her.”

A genuine discussion

Ms. Bröll said the Chancellor was incredibly sincere during the meeting.

“It’s good to see a state leader that takes the time to talk to scientists and actually wants to know what they’re saying,” she said. “You can feel a genuine interest, because she asks questions that it’s clear she’s thought about. She understands what she’s asking and they’re not questions that have been scripted by someone else.”

When it came time to throw some questions back at the Chancellor, Ms. Bröll was ready. “She said, ‘I’m only here once, I probably won’t be coming every week, so if you have any questions, raise your hand,’ and I was the first one to do it.”

Ms. Bröll asked a question that's likely on any young scientist’s mind: “How do I make a difference?” The Chancellor’s response?

“She basically told us to never lose our curiosity, never despair, and always look at your own mistakes before others’,” said Ms. Bröll. “I thought that was really interesting."

Read also: German Chancellor makes the most of her Dalhousie visit


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