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A Glimpse into the Future

What drives Scientific Director Prof Wolfgang Kaysser?

Wolfgang kaysser at his desk

Photo: HZG/Jan-Timo Schaube

Prof Wolfgang Kaysser (68) is scientific director of the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht.

This is an ideal job for a materials researcher who knows how structures, frameworks and ultimately large components arise from atoms; someone who has learned to make something whole from small building blocks.

The melody of his voice gives him away immediately: Wolfgang Kaysser hails from Swabia. He spent his childhood and teenage years in Winnenden near Stuttgart. He spent much of his time as a boy on his grandparents’ farm; he trained in the judo club and skied, the latter with a special commitment—after he graduated from secondary school, he fulfilled his military service with the mountain troops. Kaysser then went on to study mechanical engineering for one semester in Stuttgart. But eight hundred people in one lecture hall? “I notice that I’m not going to really flourish there.”

This glimpse into his own future then brings about a switch to metallurgy. Here there are three professors for every six students for each year’s class – one subject with a social structure where they expect students to perform well and enthusiasm for learning is fostered. That fits better. He soon begins a job as a student assistant at the nearby Max-Planck Institute. He leads an experiment that deals with the wetting behaviour of metals.

“Suddenly I was really up close with research that I found incredibly fun.”

Kaysser developed his career at the institute quickly: he became group leader before he even turned thirty. Things didn’t just remain that way, however; once again, he looked toward the future. “I wanted to make my own decisions and not find myself as an older researcher with a young institute director as my boss.” So, Kaysser sent his job applications out into the world. There were two options open to him: an offer from the University of Saarland or serve as director of materials research at the German Aerospace Center in Cologne. “I was already familiar with the university and Max Planck environments—so I decided in favour of the large research institute.” This alters his professional role: now Wolfgang Kaysser is primarily managing the research of others instead of undertaking research himself. It had been a “terrific time” in Cologne. He took horse riding lessons for the first time in his life, took part in Carnival and rode his racing bike through the Bergische Land. Shortly after the turn of the millennium, he then received a request from up north. His institute by this time had grown, as had his two children. In 2003, Wolfgang Kaysser took on the role as scientific director at what was then the GKSS.

What is the most vital component in such a position?

“You need to determine what you want to represent as a centre. What contribution can your research make even in fifteen years time? That’s what it’s about!”

You therefore need to invent new fields of research at times. An example can be seen in membrane research, where Kaysser will soon lead a paradigm shift. Their work now concentrates on novel polymers. “That was a pioneering decision. Without it, we at the center really wouldn’t be making membranes anymore today.” As a director, you learn that often the future counts more than the present.

According to a saying, a Swabian has two obligations in life: working hard—and “building a house”. Kaysser is no exception. At the HZG today, numerous buildings can be traced back to his initiative. “A centre lives from rejuvenation of its research and its infrastructural substance. Constructing buildings always has something to do with stabilisation.”

Among the outstanding developments in HZG research of the past ten years are energy-saving functional lightweight engineering, clean mobility with hydrogen, and the body’s own regeneration with the help of biomaterials. “Today we are already contemplating the systems of tomorrow—in coastal and climate research as well. How do the decisions we make today change the coastal seas of the future? Such questions must be addressed. That’s why we engage in research.” He feels especially proud today of the Climate Service Center GERICS, which arose from a simple project without a “blueprint”. It had been a “march through the jungle,” he says. “There was a lot of work and a great deal of tenacity involved.” Magnesium research at the HZG has also been an enormous success story. Here we’ve meanwhile become one of the “three, four big players worldwide.”

Wolfgang Kaysser will bid farewell in August as scientific director. How the story will continue afterward is something he keeps to himself. One thing is for certain, however: if he just rides his Italian carbon racing bike and waters his flowers on the balcony—well, that would “soon bore him.” You can start placing your bets that Wolfgang Kaysser will undertake in the coming years something he has done during his sixteen years at the HZG. Looking toward the future. And then making good decisions.

Author: Jochen Metzger
Published in the in2science #8 (Juni 2019)