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ETH - Eidgenoessische Technische Hochschule Zuerich - Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich
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Published: 12.07.2007, 06:00
Modified: 12.07.2007, 01:17
Heidi Wunderli-Allenspach as the first woman on the Executive Board
“Confident of being able to achieve some movement”

Pharmacy Professor Heidi Wunderli-Allenspach, nominated as the new Rector by the professorate, was elected to be the new ETH Zurich Executive Board member by the ETH Zurich Board on Wednesday 4 July 2007. This was the first time a woman had ever managed to gain a place on the Executive Board. Being a pioneering female is not a new experience for this natural scientist, as she explained in an interview with “ETH Life”. Among her priorities after taking up her office on 1 September 2007, Heidi Wunderli-Allenspach includes consolidating the Bologna Reform and developing a meaningful ETH Zurich Graduate School.

Interview: Norbert Staub

Professor Wunderli-Allenspach, many congratulations on being elected as Rector of ETH Zurich – what is the attraction of this function for you?

Honestly speaking, two or three years ago I would never have dreamt that this would be possible for me, because I felt and still feel very happy in my work as ETH Zurich Professor of Biopharmacy. As is well-known, there were turbulent undercurrents at ETH Zurich in 2006, leading to the resignation of the President Ernst Hafen. As head of the Chemistry and Applied Biological Sciences Department, I was close to the events. Because I always voice my opinion as well, I also became increasingly well-known in the College of Professors. In this phase I grew ever more aware how much quality and constructive commitment resides in our professorate and what a wealth of personalities is assembled here. I mean that not only in relation to research and teaching, but also regarding the times when difficulties arise. After this experience I said to myself that I could imagine collaborating in the management of ETH Zurich. My nomination by the professorate with two thirds of the votes makes me confident that I can achieve some movement in this function.

How do you view your role as Rector?

Basically it is all about defining meaningful guidelines and facilitating good solutions for the teaching area. I had already been working hard since 2000 on the question of what belongs in a good coursework programme and what does not – during the revision of our Pharmaceutical Sciences degree programme. For us at that time implementing the Bologna Reform was just one more small step.

With regard to Switzerland, will you become a Bologna “driving force” like the Rector and current President Konrad Osterwalder?

I have always been strongly committed to study reform: its implementation at ETH Zurich has now got off to an extremely good start. My task will be to accompany, consolidate and adjust this process. For example we must not allow the number of new Master programmes to get out of hand – an “anything goes” approach is impossible. The proliferation of titles must be avoided and we must also keep an eye on costs. There are some Master programmes that can be designed in a relatively cost-neutral way. Others are very expensive. From my own experience I can mention the Master programme in Pharmaceutical Sciences at this point. The major semester, Master thesis and the assistance year make heavy demands not only on the students but also regarding organisation and funding.

What will be your other priorities?

The ETH Zurich Graduate School is certainly the second big development area. We have 420 doctoral students in the Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences (D-CHAB) alone, with a rising trend. I think the present route to gaining the title of Doctor should remain open. It involves a future doctoral student looking for a professor for his/her project autonomously. However, in addition to that we want to give researchers an opportunity to recruit doctoral students in a targeted way by advertisement and interview. At the same time special attention must be given to tutorial support. In general we must ensure that doctoral students are well integrated into a group and an institute, and feel comfortable. However – for various reasons - it was always true that this approach succeeded better in some places than in others. In a nutshell: as so often at ETH Zurich, a discriminating approach is needed here.

Your area of responsibility also includes the ETH Zurich library, further education and the Center for Higher Education…

... Yes, these are major areas which I am now getting to know from new viewpoints and with which to some extent I still have to familiarise myself. For example the Center for Teaching and Learning has made an excellent site determination in the shape of the Road Map. This, among other things, will be for me a basis for the future.

Have you already spoken to your “main target group”, the students?

Yes. I consider it essential that I keep in very close contact and continuous dialogue with the students so that I know what is on their minds. Collaboration with the ETH Zurich Students Association (VSETH) has become very well established. Their suggestions, for example about the new timetable for examination sessions, were most sensible and useful.

You have been a professor at ETH Zurich for more than 20 years. What changes have occurred in teaching during that time?

The biggest changes were probably caused by the advent of computers, with all the benefits – for example the possibility of e-learning – but also the problems that the digital age brings with it. Just imagine how easy it is nowadays to fake coursework by copy/paste. It has become much more difficult to recognise original thinking compared to the typewriter era. However, I believe there has been no fundamental change in the ingredients for good teaching at an institution of higher education. As always, capable and committed lecturers with strong teaching personalities who have something to say and to present can captivate more than 300 students in a single room. Moreover they can do this using the much derided teacher-centred teaching method without all the latest presentation technology gizmos.

From a full Professorship for Biopharmacy to Rector of ETH Zurich: Heidi Wunderli-Allenspach. large

Anyone who now talks about small group tuition as the order of the day must realise that this cannot be the only way forward on grounds of quality and cost alone. Excellent teaching is and remains a good mix of exercises, laboratory courses and lectures. I should like to mention two more innovations that are specific to ETH Zurich: firstly the SiROP programme, which actively introduces especially motivated students to research at a very early stage, thus adding a central element to expand these students’ learning experience. Secondly the great openness of ETH Zurich teaching towards the practical world. Nowadays it is possible to follow a Master or Doctor programme in close cooperation with industry, thus gaining experience as well.

In 1986 you were the first female assistant professor at ETH Zurich, in 1992 you were the second female associate professor there had even been here, and now you are the first woman on the Executive Board. Didn’t your status as a female pioneer cause you problems occasionally?

No. I already felt very comfortable at this Institute as a Biology student, of whom 25 to 30 percent were women. Later as a lecturer I never had a single problem being one of the few women in this function. Nor have I ever needed to endorse feminist demands. Nevertheless I must say one thing: it is a crying shame that the huge potential of women in engineering and the natural sciences is given much too little opportunity to bear fruit. However ETH Zurich is not to blame for that. The problem is a social one and must really be tackled as early as the primary school stage. ETH Zurich should at least not put any obstacles in the way of women’s careers at institutions of higher education. For example the family friendliness of these positions would need further improvement. Each individual professorship can make its contribution to this.

ETH Zurich has gone through a troubled phase. There was turmoil inside ETH Zurich last year, and currently there are tensions between ETH Zurich and the ETH Zurich Board. In your opinion, what does the Institute now need?

ETH Zurich is definitely not a case for remedial treatment, as people would sometimes have us believe. The problems are external ones. We must arrive at a solution in the distribution of the federal funding, preferably by reaching agreement within the ETH Domain. The Executive Board could also contribute by appearing more consciously and more visibly as a team. Also I think there are entirely structural questions in need of discussion, from clarifying the interfaces within the Executive Board and between the Executive Board and the departments, to re-examining the areas of responsibility of individual Executive Board members. Not least it is now necessary to help the departments to achieve the autonomy that they are striving for.

Involved in science and educational politics

Born on 1 January 1947, Heidi Wunderli-Allenspach studied Biology at the Natural Sciences Department of ETH Zurich. She trained as an electron microscopist at the Brain Research Institute of the University of Zurich (Professor K. Akert). Next she completed the post-graduate course in Experimental Medicine and Biology at the University of Zurich before writing her doctoral thesis at the Biology Centre of the University of Basel (Professors Eduard Kellenberger and Werner Arber). After completing it, she worked for two years as a post-doc at Duke University in Durham, N.C., USA, for three years at the Swiss Cancer Research Institute (ISREC) in Epalinges and for three years in the Institute for Immunology and Virology at the University of Zurich. After her return to ETH Zurich she was appointed assistant professor on 1 October 1986 and associate professor in 1992. Since 1995 she has been a full Professor for Biopharmacy at the Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences.

Heidi Wunderli-Allenspach dedicates and has dedicated herself for more than two decades to the needs of ETH Zurich and to questions of studies, for example as President of the Lecturers’ Commission, in the co-ordination group “Pharmacy Study Reform CH”, as Co-President of the Pharmacy Sub-Commission of the Steering Committee for Examinations in Medicine, as a member of the ETH Zurich Structure and Studies Commission, for many years as a Director of Studies for Pharmaceutical Sciences and as Head of the Department of Pharmacy and later of Chemistry and Applied Biological Sciences.

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